Literary Witness 7
By David Mills
At the end of the nineteenth century, Malcolm Muggeridge observed, “it would have seemed only too obvious that Christian institutions which bowed to the prevailing evolutionary current had the best chance of survival. Let them jettison their more ludicrous dogma and ceremonial, and take their place in the vanguard of progress . . . . Then they could be sure of finding themselves on the winning side.”
And where are these compromising churches now? “All faltering or extinct. . . . As things have turned out, it is ‘enlightened’ sects like the Unitarians which have withered on the vine, not ‘obscurantist’ Roman Catholicism.” (He was not, when he wrote this, a Christian in any but the very broadest sense.)
The irony, he noted, was that the compromising churches gave up just as people were finally tired of secularism and looking for a transcendent answer, like a castle long under attack, “whose garrison, besieged, starving, decimated, holds desperately on, only when the attackers themselves have lost heart and decided to abandon the struggle, to open the gates and sally forth bearing white flags. Contraceptives and copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover have been laid as propitiatory offerings on an expiring altar; the Red Sea opened, but the hosts of Israel, mistaking their direction, took the opportunity to return to Egypt and bondage.”
Muggeridge wrote in the sixties, but many Christians still instinctively retreat when the world rejects the Faith, as it nearly always does. Our writers refused to do so, and there may be some significance in the fact that they are still read, when no one outside a seminary still reads all the hip with-it modern up-to-the-minute theologians. One of them, an Anglican named Norman Pittenger, famously patronized C. S. Lewis in the pages of a leading magazine. Today he is remembered, if anyone remembers him at all, mainly as the man who patronized C. S. Lewis.
The compromising Christians assumed that if the Church removes from the Faith the elements the world dislikes most, it might accept the rest. They were disastrously, and also predictably, wrong.
They offered people a product no one wanted. If you want to be worldly, worldly worldliness is a lot more fun than churchy worldliness, and if you want to be religious, real religion is a lot more rewarding than worldly, or discount, religion.
The worldly can come to see that the world does not make them happy. Secular western man is a consumer of ideas and things, noted Walker Percy, but eventually even he finds that he can’t buy what he really wants. “The consumer, who thought he knew what he wanted . . . is not in fact satisfied, even when the services offered are such techniques as ‘personal growth,’ ‘emotional maturity,’ ‘consciousness-raising,’ and suchlike.”
The secular alternatives do not give us anything compelling on which to base and build a life, and no glorious ideal to reach for. Scientism, for example, “explains everything under the sun except what it is to be a man, to live, and to die.”
Our writers recognized the hope in this. The Western world “is so corrupt and boring that sooner or later young people will get sick of it and look for something better,” Percy wrote.
C. S. Lewis saw this happen in the early forties among Oxford students who were apparently as libidinous as today’s are reported to be. “It was a beautiful sight,” he wrote, describing a lecture on chastity by his friend Charles Williams: “a whole room full of modern young men and women sitting in that absolute silence which can not be faked, very puzzled, but spell-bound . . . the forbidden subject broached at last. He forced them to lap it up and I think many, by the end, liked the taste more than they expected to.”
He continued: “What a wonderful power there is in the direct appeal which disregards the current climate of opinion — I wonder is it the case that the man who has the audacity to get up in any corrupt society and squarely preach justice or valor or the like always wins?”
“I am now persuaded,” he wrote a few days later, “that a real red-hot Christian revival, with iron dogma, stern discipline, and ruthless asceticism, is very much more possible than I had supposed.” Percy thought that “All it takes is a couple of high-livers, like Francis of Assisi, a real dude, and Clare, a rich teenage groupie, to turn it around, to actually put into practice the living truth of the Church’s teachings, of the Gospel.”
But Lewis also knew the worldliness in himself, and provides a warning to the rest of us. If the red hot revival comes, “people like us will not find it nearly so agreeable as we expected. . . . This is the goods. We ought to have expected that if the real thing came it would make one sit up.”
David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. “Red-Hot Revival” appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of Lay Witness.
The quotes appear in: Muggeridge, “Backward Christian Soldiers!” in The Most of Malcolm Muggeridge; Percy, “If I had five minutes with the Pope” in Signposts in a Strange Land; Percy, “Church, the Culture, and Evangelization” in ibid.; Lewis, Collected Letters, vol. II pp. 346; Lewis, Collected Letters, vol. II pp. 351-352.