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The Last Dregs of Christendom: An Interview with Paul Kingsnorth by Jonathon Van Maren

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The Last Dregs of Christendom:
An Interview with Paul Kingsnorth

An image of a church in ruins.

Photo: Courtesy of Rajesh Misra, licensed under CC0 Public Domain.

“We’re in either a collapse or a massive transformation culturally in the West,” Paul Kingsnorth tells me cheerfully from his home study in Ireland. “We’re very much at the end of the last dregs of Christendom, which have been dragged out for a long time and are now basically gone. If you take a step back, you ask yourself: why are we even talking about a thing called ‘the West’? The only reason is that it’s the remnants of Western Christendom—which then became Enlightenment liberalism, which is also basically collapsing because it had no real foundation other than individualism. We’re looking at the end of a culture and the beginning of something else, which appears to be a combination of radical individualism and global capitalism at its most rapacious. It’s not a good-looking future.”

I’m chatting with Paul Kingsnorth via Zoom. Behind him are shelves spilling over with books and binders, and I hear a rooster crowing loudly—it turns out to be his daughter’s Bantam. He hoists it to the camera, and the Bantam displays his beautiful red comb and wattles and excellent orange plumage. He is not house-trained, and so his humans clean up after him. The rooster is a new father, and their Silkie chicken has just hatched several duck eggs. The Kingsnorth homestead, where he and his wife (a former psychiatrist) homeschool their two children, is now home to 800 newly planted trees and enormous vegetable gardens. The Kingsnorths aren’t preppers, per se, but they could pass for them.

Paul Kingsnorth in a photograph from 2011.

Photo: Courtesy of Navjoat Kingsnorth, licensed under CCA-SA 3.0 Unported.

Kingsnorth was once one of the UK’s most notorious environmentalists, a writer and activist who physically barricaded constructions sites and was arrested for chaining himself to a bridge. In 2001, New Statesman named him one of Britain’s “top ten troublemakers,” and Kingsnorth busied himself with both journalism and activism, traveling the world to report on the clash between nature and civilization. His 2003 book, One No, Many Yeses, was a prescient look at how globalization destroys historic cultures. In 2014, he published the first of his Buckmaster Trilogy, the story of an Anglo-Saxon’s resistance against the Norman conquerors in 1066 and written in a unique fusion of Old and Modern English. In 2020, Aris Roussinos of unHerd called Kingsnorth, “England’s greatest living writer.”

Earlier this year, Kingsnorth stunned many by announcing that he had been baptized into the Romanian Orthodox Church after a decade-long spiritual journey that had taken him through Buddhism, paganism, and finally to the foreign faith of his forefathers: Christianity. He described his transformation in a magnificent essay in First Things entitled “The Cross and the Machine.” He noted that the philosopher John Moriarty had observed, “The story of Christianity is the story of humanity’s rebellion against God”—and this was a revelation.

“I had never thought of that ancient, tired religion in this way before, never had reason to, but as I did now, I could feel something happening—some inner shift, some coming together of previously scattered parts designed to fit, though I had never known it, into a quiet, unbreakable whole,” he wrote. “A truth I would surrender to. What was this abyss inside me, this space that had been empty for years, that I had tried to fill with everything from sex to fame to politics to kenshō, and why was something chiming in it now like a distant Angelus across the western sea?”

Kingsnorth, like most adults in the post-Christian West, had not grown up going to church. His story is another reminder that the West’s departure from Christianity is now a generation or two in the making. Most non-Christians have never explicitly rejected Christianity—that was accomplished by their parents or, more likely, their grandparents. Growing up, Kingsnorth wrote, the two flavors of Christianity on offer were the Victorian vicar of “the fusty old Church of England variety” or the “trendy vicar” who ludicrously attempted to infuse ancient truths with pop culture, doing a disservice to both. He became a stereotypical teenage atheist, raging against a dead God and a foolish faith, participating in the age-old Christian story of man’s rebellion against God. If he had a faith, it was a pantheistic mysticism that served him well as he began his journey into environmental activism. Despite that, however, “Even an atheist could see that our attempts to play God would end in disaster. Wasn’t that a warning that echoed through the myths and stories of every culture on Earth?”

These are themes that Kingsnorth explores regularly on his Substack, The Abbey of Misrule, which is essential reading for anyone who wishes to grapple with the historical moment we inhabit. In magnificent essays such as The Dream of the Rood” and “The Green Martyrdom,” Kingsnorth has joined a growing group of intellectuals of all ideological stripes attempting to make sense of our collapsing culture and discern what response, if any, is required—or even possible. 

In many ways, Kingsnorth has been writing about the end of the world for his entire professional career. As a Christian, however, he now sees through different eyes. He is not the only one—many intellectuals have begun to nervously wonder aloud what might replace Christianity as it fades into the rear-view mirror, and some have even suggested a sort of cultural Christianity—a medicine far too weak to beat the wild religious fervor of the ‘woke.’ For his part, Kingsnorth believes that cultural Christianity is a misnomer. “There’s no reason for the West to continue at all if you don’t believe the thing it was built on.” 

The truth is that very few do. In Great Britain and across Europe, the most vibrant religious communities have often been built by immigrants from cultures once evangelized by Western missionaries. Christendom is dead, and we do not yet understand the implications of this strange historical moment. “We are now the new pagans in the West,” Kingsnorth told me. “You can’t build a culture on consumerism. You can’t build a culture on angry individualism. You can’t build a culture on a culture war between the Left and the Right, both of whom seem to be fueled by anger rather than love. So, you have to go back to the roots.”

“What is truth? How do you convey it?” Kingsnorth asked. “We are in this pregnant widow moment, where the old world is basically dead and the new one is yet to be born. We are like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History being blown back through history, but we can’t see where we’re going. That’s always been true to some degree, but it is very clear that in twenty or thirty years time, the world will be very different—and we don’t know what it’s going to look like.”

How shall Christians live in a post-Christian age? It is a question that many have been struggling with, most notably Kingsnorth’s Orthodox fellow traveler Rod Dreher, conservative blogger and author of The Benedict Option and Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents. Dreher advocates the cultivation of Christian communities inhabited by families and refugees of the sexual revolution, living out the truth of God’s Word with intentionality and faithfulness. I suspect Kingsnorth, who recently wrote about his trip to Skellig Michael, would find much to agree with in Dreher’s work. “It shows you what Christianity was once like,” he said of the island where monks carved their abode out of the cliffs in the 6th century. “Some model for future Christianity can be found there.”

To Kingsnorth, the post-Christian West is metastasizing as much as emerging. “What the Machine does—this great agglomeration of capitalism, state power, and technology—is promise us endless liberation from all the difficulties of life,” he tells me, “which of course religion does too, but in a very different way.” That, Kingsnorth notes, may be an understatement:

“We have built our Machine to replace God. It says: ‘We can liberate ourselves here. We don’t need this stuff about the next life, we don’t need gods, self-sacrifice. We can build it ourselves.’ It’s like the Tower of Babel. We can build our way out of death, probably by uploading our minds to a computer or freezing our heads until it’s possible to resurrect ourselves or expand onto other planets. We stave off aging by carving up our faces with plastic surgery. If we’re the ‘wrong sex,’ you can change that now, as well. There’s nothing we’re not promised to make us happier.”

As Kingsnorth discovered for himself, it is all a lie. In fact, it is part of ‘The Lie.’ People need limits, sacrifice, family, and above all, God. But in the post-Christian West, even the essential nature of family has been largely forgotten:

“I see that one of the problems we have is that families—and belief in the family—is just collapsing, and the belief in what a mother and a father even are, is being questioned,” Kingsnorth observed. “If you can’t accept a definition of the word mother or father, or what a child is, or what marriage is, then you haven’t got the basis of your culture. The family is always the bedrock of all culture, everywhere. ‘The Machine’ breaks down every border, every boundary, until all you have left is broken, agitated individuals who try to fill the void by consuming. Each day, there is less and less of a reason to imagine we have any social bonds left with anyone.”

The basis of today’s West is, in theological terms, a rebellion against both nature and nature’s God. Kingsnorth highlights climate change, the mass rupturing of human relationships, and the spiritual vacuum to which society has nothing to offer but more liberation. “You’re still not liberated enough,” he said sarcastically. “There’s still limits you haven’t broken through” The responses from both Left and Right strike him as delusional:

“That’s the response from the Left: ‘There’s still too many bigots around. If we just cancel them all, we’ll be fine.’ On the extreme Right, there’s the belief that the leftists are destroying everything and if we just get rid of them, we’ll be able to live the true life again. But it’s a refusal to accept limits and self-sacrifice—that you might have to give up things you want to do to create a better world—that is driving us mad and driving our culture to the wall.”

The answer to what Christians should do lies in the framing of the problem. “What we probably have to do at this point, in another collapse, is go down to the small scale, which is where everything starts,” Kingsnorth said. In short, we must go back to our roots:

“You have to live it, model it. If you look at the history of the early church, what you see is that for the first couple of hundred years, the church is spreading right across the Middle East, despite the fact that its basically illegal to be Christian—there aren’t really missionaries going out after St. Paul: it’s not fashionable to convert and it might get you killed. So, what’s going on there? Why is this weird underground religion, which is illegal and makes you a bit of a social outcast, spreading? One answer might be that those early Christians were modeling something that people wanted.”

Kingsnorth himself is working with his family and friends to create their own local community where they live. “It’s a long, slow, process,” he noted. “You’ve got to start rebuilding right at the grassroots again. It’s a matter of recovering. I’ve never described myself as a conservative, even though there’s a lot of things I’d like to conserve. We’re rebuilding in the rubble. We need to get right back to what you believe ‘the Truth’ to be and build a culture around that. The good news is that if there is an eternal truth and there is a God and if the stories we believe in as Christians are true, then it’s all going to be alright anyway. It’s a matter of rediscovering that and starting again. There’s been lots of times in history when this has happened.”

In short, Christians should build families and communities at the local level. “You’re probably going to have to try very hard to love your neighbour, as well,” Kingsnorth laughed. “It’s always been hard, and now it’s even harder. We’re all terrible at it. I certainly am. But loving God and your neighbour—I think you have to start there.”

If we do that, Christian communities may again shine like candles in the deepening darkness. “If you can show that actually living a Christian life in terms of tradition is a valuable thing to do in a time when the culture is collapsing further and further and faster and faster, you’re actually showing an attractive alternative to that,” Kingsnorth mused. “It’s back to that line in the Gospels when people hear about Jesus, and they just say: ‘Come and see.’ [Jn 1:46] ‘Come and see’—not: ‘we’re telling you how to live.’ Come and see. If the Christian story is true, then the Christian lifestyle ought to be a good one—and I’m not saying that as somebody who is any good at it.”

That may be true—but as the long, withdrawing roar of Christendom rises to a pitch, Paul Kingsnorth’s voice is one worth our attention.

Jonathon Van Maren has written for First Things, National Review, The American Conservative, and is a contributing editor to The European Conservative. His latest book is Patriots: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Pro-Life Movement.

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