For the last sixteen years, San Jose, California – otherwise known as Silicon Valley, the technology capital of the world – has been my home. I moved here after an introduction via mutual coworker friends at the computer hardware company where I worked turned into marriage. My husband is a third generation Bay Area native who likes to regale me with memories of what San Jose used to look like when he was young. In those distant days, the sun shone through of rows of fruit trees growing in the orchards and farms that were so plentiful the area was known as “The Valley of Heart’s Delight”. Today, the orchards have been largely replaced by high tech office buildings, lined up alongside gridlocked thoroughfares and freeways, the morning sun glinting on recognizable logos like Ebay, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and a thousand startups that aspire to be them. These companies are where my neighbors, my kids’ school friends’ parents, and both my husband and I, all work, designing the hardware, software and Internet infrastructure on which much of the world now runs.
The dominant value that drives Silicon Valley culture is living life without limits. From laptops, mobile phones and apps, to the infrastructure that keeps everything “always on”, Silicon Valley technology companies create and sell the ability to be anywhere, do anything, buy anything, and know everything, all the time. Got a problem? There’s an app for that. Got a question? Just Google it. Need something right away? Amazon can get it to your doorstep by tomorrow (and after their drone service launches, they’ll have delivery time down to 30 minutes).
The more the world buys in to the “anything anytime” way of life technology offers, the more pressure the companies who profit from selling it place on their people to deliver it. Can’t be in meetings at two places at once? Log in to a robot and be there virtually . Are meal breaks cutting into your productivity? Try Soylent. Need to optimize your efficiency? Hack your brain with fasting and “nootropic supplements.” Workforce demands for costly benefits like time off and overtime dragging down profits and production rates? Just replace your people with robots. For all Silicon Valley talks about work/life balance, the reality is that many people in my city teeter continually on the edge of burnout from the relentless pressure.
Christians like me who work in the high tech industry are only just beginning to wrestle with what it looks like to live as faithful followers of Christ in the digital world we are helping to build; all Christians are wrestling with how to live in it. Several years ago, Hannah Anderson offered one answer in a book called “Made For More”. In it, she argued that we will struggle with the various roles and vocations to which God calls us unless they are grounded in our most fundamental identity as human beings made in the image of God. While primarily written for Christian women struggling to separate cultural expectations about womanhood from genuinely biblical ones, “Made For More’s” argument about the centrality of the doctrine of the imago dei to our identity and purpose, directly counters contemporary Silicon Valley dogma that human beings are simply sophisticated iPhone apps to be deployed, consumed, enhanced, then deleted when no longer of use.
In her latest book, “Humble Roots – How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Our Souls”, Anderson extends the conversation about the centrality of “imago dei” by examining one of its most important and transformative implications for everyday life. In her introduction she states, “…looking like God does not mean that we are God. We are made in God’s image, but we are made nonetheless.” (p. 11) Anderson’s assertion is that the key to productive and peaceful Christian living is found, not in fighting our limitations, as the modern titans of technology would insist, but in embracing them, and entrusting ourselves to the One who truly is limitless, not just in power, but in love. Ostensibly a book of lessons in humility gleaned from life in rural Appalachia, the central theme of “Humble Roots” offers a compelling, and profoundly countercultural, vision for what it truly looks like to live as imago dei, in an increasingly imago apparatus world.
The unifying Scripture passage for the book is Matthew 6:25-34, in which Jesus encourages His followers to “consider the lilies” – to look at the natural world and see how it testifies to God’s provision for His children who are made in His image. In “Humble Roots”, Anderson writes a series of meditations on lessons learned living amongst the fields and flowers of rural Appalachia, as the wife of a fulltime pastor who is also a gifted gardener and hobby farmer. Through stories of plowing in winter and sun-ripened tomato harvesting in summer, herbs and local honey, Anderson takes Jesus’ words to heart to look at the natural world and see what God is saying to her, and to us, about the sources of our everyday worries and anxieties, and how to put them to rest.
In the first section of the book, Anderson works to uncovers the root, as it were, of the stress and overwork that plagues so many of us. She locates it in our efforts to pursue productivity and peace on our own terms, and in our own strength. While a “bright red anemone can dance beside a gun’s turret” without a care, we run around in endless circles of business and stress, behaving as though each day’s outcomes is entirely dependent on us, but stymied by the evidence of how little is actually in our control. Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 challenge us to acknowledge this reality, instead of fighting it, and to look to Him for the rest all of our work is failing to accomplish. “In chapter 2, “Breaking Ground”, Anderson shows how the weight of the burdens of expectations and effort that we place on ourselves can be compared to the heavy yokes oxen would wear in the agrarian culture of Jesus’ day. When Jesus exhorts his listeners to “take My yoke upon you…for My yoke is easy and my burden is light”, He is not calling us to take on yet one more burden, but to exchange the heavy ones of our own work for the lightness of submission to him. When we set aside the heavy yoke of our confidence in our to live life under our own strength and on our own terms, and submit to the yoke of Jesus, He gives us rest.
As Anderson notes, many Christians approach the pursuit of this needed humble submission the way they approach other aspects of sanctification – as a matter of sheer will. In chapter 3, “Returning to Our Roots”, Anderson shows that the best our self-derived efforts at humility will produce is the nefarious “humblebrag” (pg. 49). In big ways and small, our self-derived efforts to achieve humility through more control, continual self-denial, or a “let it go” mentality, just becomes yet one more burdensome yoke to bear. Just as the vintners tending Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello vineyard only succeeded in growing wine when they grafted vine cuttings from a foreign country onto their rootstock, we need a source of humility that isn’t derived from us, or our efforts. We need Jesus’ humility, the humility that caused Him to set aside His limitless glory and live as a dependent, limited human man on our behalf. “Through His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus shows us our true identity as people dependent on God for life. And through His life, death, and resurrection, He imparts this humble life to us once again.” (pg. 57) True humility begins when we acknowledge that even our ability to be humble is limited, and we look to Jesus to lay down our efforts, and rest in His.
With this foundation laid, the rest of the book considers how this kind of humility, grounded in equal measures of honest acknowledgement of our limits, and confident faith in God’s provision for them through Christ, “grounds and nourishes our souls”, as the subtitle states. In the second section of the book, Anderson considers the effects this kind of humility can have on ourselves as individuals – on our perception of our bodies, our handling of our emotions, and the relative trust (or distrust) we should have in our own intellect and abilities. In the final section of the book, she looks at how humility can transform the way we move through the world – how we use our gifts and pursue our desires, how we think about suffering (our own as well as what we observe in the world), and how to look at the ultimate symbols of our finitude – sleep and death.
Anderson doesn’t try to cover every possible aspect of life humility can transform, but the areas on which she does focus are ones to which every reader will relate. Indeed, there is an entire cottage industry of books dedicated to helping women overcome their body image issues, or find contentment or so forth. I’ve certainly read my share of them. “Humble Roots” exposes why so many of them failed to have the intended effect. Too often, they encourage us to simply pull at the stems and leaves of an issue, while leaving its roots behind, permitting the toxic growth to begin all again. “Humble Roots” shows how to wield humility like a trowel, to dig under the pride that is at the root of so many of the issues that rob us of joy and cause anxiety, and cast those sins aside for good.
For example, on body image she says this:
“Simply learning to ‘love your body’ will not free you from shame because, at times, your body will feel very unlovable. What will free you from shame is…accepting that you are not and were never meant to be divine.”(pg.89)
On pursuing goals and plans she writes,
“It is precisely through the process of learning to plan that we learn to depend on the God who makes our plans happen. Pride, on the other hand, demands to know God’s will before it will act.” (pg.159)
“Part of humility means trusting God with our plans and submitting to the possibility that they will not be fulfilled. But part of humility also means trusting God with our plans and submitting to the possibiility that they will be fulfilled in ways we cannot imagine…the humble also understand that the possibility of failure is no reason not to work.” (pg. 167)
And on pursuing a godly perspective on our differing gifts and privilege, she notes (with a gentle dig at the premise of a famous best selling book for women on gratitude)
“When we consider our resources, it is not simply enough to count our one thousand gifts. Our one thousand gifts are actually one thousand opportunities: the very means by which God intends to seed His world.”(pg. 149)
With the beautiful prose and thoughtful turns of phrases that are her trademark, “Humble Roots” establishes Anderson as a writer and thinker who communicates theologically deep and culturally subversive ideas in a deceptively simple and beautiful way. As with “Made For More”, supporting quotes and anecdotes from popular works of literature like “Pride and Prejudice” and ”The Fellowship of the Ring”, as well as more scholarly works by Anne Marie Slaughter, Isaac Watts, and others, are sprinkled throughout the book. The stories she tells about her failed efforts to grow pole beans, or her struggles to understand her husband’s expensive enthusiasm for heirloom apples, are refreshingly self-deprecating (as perhaps is appropriate for a book on humility!). And you shouldn’t read the final chapter until you have some Kleenex and a quiet spot to compose yourself after you ugly-cry.
Many examples in the book reference church ministry as a context where the battle of pride vs. humility is constantly waged and frequently lost, which is understandable, given Anderson’s role as pastor’s wife. Consequently, I couldn’t help contemplating the benefits to the church if this book were to makes its way onto the required reading list for people preparing to enter full time ministry. I say “people”, because although Anderson writes to and for women, the insights in this book, as well as her previous one, have universal application. There is a long unchallenged adage that women will gladly read books written by men, but men are reluctant to do the same. Because of the way “Humble Roots” frames humility as a posture of acknowledgement of our boundaries and limits as human beings, I’ve never a read a book with more potential to help men, as well as women, contemplate the ways gender itself is a form of human limitation. A humble willingness to look to, and learn from, the uniqueness of the imago dei through our differences as male and female, would be a beautiful expression of God’s original design in the very first garden He gave His creatures to tend.
A few readers may find some of Anderson’s stories from nature overly lengthy, relative to the spiritual applications she draws from them. And her frequent use of couplets and triplets to emphasize her points may read as somewhat repetitive, at least to pragmatic readers like me, who are most often helped best when an author makes a point once, then moves on. But chapter 7 challenged me to question my impatience. In “Vine Ripened” Anderson compares our preference for fast answers, and neat and tidy solutions to the problems of the Christian life, to a tomato that has been artificially ripened in a greenhouse – red, plump and shiny on the outside, but inside, a “mealy, flavorless mouthful of regret.” The best tomatoes are the ones who have been tended and nourished by months of cycles of sunlight and darkness, and continual pruning and tending. “Humility predisposes us to believe that we always have something to learn.”(pg. 121) In the weeks since I first read “Humble Roots” hardly a day has gone by that I haven’t been brought up short by a new awareness of the pride behind a casual thought or an impatient word, and I’ve been compelled to rehearse what I thought didn’t need repeating.
Therein is the profundity of “Humble Roots”. It calls us to acknowledge our weaknesses, and in heeding its words offers a path to true strength and real rest. A book by a country pastor’s wife from Appalachian hill country offers a better and truer vision for life than a thousand Steve Jobs or Bill Gates ever can. A book that hearkens to Silicon Valley’s own rural past, serves as an invitation to a more beautiful, lasting future, and offers the tools that could build it, if we would but have the humility to accept them, and lay our own useless ones down.
I can’t recommend it highly enough.
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