The Plough Writers Weekend took place in August 2021, at the Fox Hill Bruderhof in Walden, New York. Authors, theologians, philosophers, academics, journalists, essayists, and poets, along with many Bruderhof members, gathered to discuss how to move forward in a world still haunted by the pandemic, and in a country divided into increasingly embittered political and cultural camps.
Professor Stanley Hauerwas began the weekend with a talk on the future of the good life: Does living a good life mean ending up on the right side of history, identifying oneself with a particular cause, or having the freedom to choose any option? Hauerwas drew on works by Alasdair MacIntyre and John Milbank – as well as the English shepherd and writer James Rebanks. Zena Hitz and Pater Edmund Waldstein responded to Hauerwas’s critique and agreed that consumerism and individualism have not brought us the good life – though Zena put in a good word for liberalism (someone needed to!)
On Saturday morning, Russell Moore continued the conversation, speaking on how the church can restore its integrity when the challenges it faces come not just from secularism but from corruption and hypocrisy within. “We are losing too many of a generation – not because they are secularists, but because they believe we are. What this demands is not a rebranding, but a repentance – meaning, as the Bible does, a turnaround.” In the panel discussion, Jennifer Frey, Stanley Hauerwas, Eugene Rivers, and Heinrich Arnold responded to Moore’s address.
The formal conversations of the weekend were concluded by husband-and-wife duo Ross Douthat and Abigail Tucker, discussing the future of kids. Their conversation drew on Abigail’s latest book Mom Genes: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct and Ross’s recent article in Plough, “The Case for One More Child.”
It has been a hard year. For many, this year has been one of pain, through isolation from family and friends, the loss of loved ones, and the accentuation of economic, political, and racial divides. Emerging from a year of isolation, division, and plague, we decided that we needed to begin to focus on regeneration.
We started thinking about this gathering this past winter, in the depths of the second spike, when there was no end in sight. We needed to plan something that would take place when we would be able to meet not through the dark glass of Zoom but face to face.
Despite frustrating variants and imperfect vaccines, we’re now in at least the beginning of that time. And the question of what we want to build and how we want to be part of the regeneration of our civil culture, religious life, public spaces, friendships, and families is pressing. What will such a process look like? With the changes brought by the pandemic, it can be easy to isolate ourselves in the present, focusing only on what is directly around us, tangible and visible. But regeneration needs to look toward the future.
In April 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic began to take hold of global consciousness, Plough published a digital issue of its magazine titled “Regeneration.” Its goal, as laid out in the introductory editorial, was to begin a conversation about how regeneration could come about:
In a time of crisis – whether a pandemic, a terrorist attack, or a war – people are quick to say “things will never be the same.” This comes from an understandable urge. Faced with suffering of such magnitude, our instinct is to find meaning in it by claiming it has shifted the course of history. In reality, while some things may change in the wake of the pandemic, most will not. This crisis reveals many truths but in itself will not transform or heal or renew. Christians should not be surprised or discouraged by this. We expect regeneration from another source.
The Writers Weekend acted as a continuation of that conversation, bringing together thinkers, writers, and doers from different countries and backgrounds. They differed in political and theological conviction but were united by a desire to think and live together toward the good. Instead of mulling over present individual and joint woes, we looked forward.
But the Plough Writers Weekend was far more than a few days of philosophical debate. It was a weekend of family and friends. Around a third of the attendees were children, and many elders attended as well. S’mores around the campfire, swimming and boating, tree climbing and vegetable harvesting, lawn games and barbecues, and a good portion of the attendees choosing to sleep in tents: it was something more like summer camp for postliberal communitarian nerds than it was like an ordinary conference. We even had a singalong which included the pandemic hit “Wellerman.” And on Saturday afternoon, we had a children’s festival, complete with face painting and soft-serve ice cream.
We met face to face – many of us friends and co-workers who had spent a year and a half interacting mostly on Twitter, various Slacks, and in the edits of Google docs. We held each other’s Covid-tide babies and saw how much the toddlers had grown. And we talked about those we wished could have been there, those we missed: many of you. (For reasons of Fox Hill community health, we were asked to limit the numbers we invited, which was very difficult!)
In his words of welcome to the weekend, Plough editor Peter Mommsen commented that we must “work for regeneration... in a spirit of solidarity, humility, and enthusiasm [by] taking practical steps. Among these steps is simple joy in gathering together after a year of separation.” That is exactly what the Plough Writers Weekend turned into: a celebration of community, friendship, and family, with a passion for ideas and the drive to see those ideas take practical form. We plan many more gatherings, at Fox Hill and elsewhere – and we look forward to seeing you all there.
The @Plough Writer's Weekend was the most family-friendly conference I've ever been to. Here's what they did:— Leah Libresco Sargeant (@LeahLibresco) August 9, 2021
-childcare available during major panels and sessions
-toys, cribs, highchairs available
-a volunteer babysat B during naps and at bedtime, so we could be at events https://t.co/C5SMeavWBC
As an attendee, can confirm:https://t.co/3FFACk0WFQ— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) August 9, 2021
Preparing for lakeside TLM at the Bruderhof. pic.twitter.com/ykprSaihOE— Pater Edmund (@sancrucensis) August 8, 2021
Son: Mommy I loved praise & worship at @TheBruderhof ! It was awesome!— Dr. Anika Prather (please call me Aneeeeeka) (@AnikaFreeindeed) August 10, 2021
Me: It was!! Which one did you like?
Son: When we sang the spiritual "God's Gonna Build up Zion's Walls!" It just made me want to sing!
Me: Yeah it was beautiful.
We'll be impacted a long time...