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Everyone Walks on the Wild Side

He was, as the newspapers always put it, born Jimmy Slattery of Massepequa, Long Island, before going to New York City and becoming Candy Darling, a transvestite star of Andy Warhol’s famous Factory.

He earned a small fame in the long decade of the sixties: one of the subjects of Lou Reed’s “Walk On the Wild Side” (it is not a flattering reference) and the subject of Reed’s song “Candy Says,” mentioned by the Rolling Stones in one of their songs, the star of two of Warhol’s better known movies, chosen by Tennessee Williams to act in one of his plays, the center of a famous party attended by people like George Plimpton and the clothes designer Halston, and now thirty-six years after his death the subject of an apparently worshipful documentary called Beautiful Darling.

Slattery died in 1974 at twenty-nine of lymphoma caused, according to a writer in the Village Voice, by the hormones he’d been taking. A photo for which he posed on his hospital bed the day before he died became a minor sixties icon.

According to the New York Press reviewer, Beautiful Darling ends with a quote from his diaries: “You must always be yourself no matter what the price. It is the highest form of morality.” Many of us will find it easy to scoff at a man in a dress proclaiming the need to live honestly as a moral imperative. “Of course he’d say that,” we think. “He’s wearing lipstick.”

It’s the great credo of the libertine life, “Be yourself.” But the young James Slattery was right. Aristotle and St. Thomas would have understood him. You must be who you are and suffer for it if you have to. That is, after all, one of the lessons of Good Friday. A lot of people hanging around Jerusalem that day hated the one man in history who was perfectly who he was, hated him for precisely that reason, and few of us would have liked him any better.

Slattery was only partly right, though. He did not see that we do not know ourselves, and the self we think we know is really only the self we want to have, for many reasons, a few of them our fault but many given to us. (Slattery surely did not choose to like dressing like a woman, and for all we know his desire to do so was more powerful than our desires for the more socially acceptable vices we succumb to without feeling bad about it.)

This gives us a good working definition of the Fall of Man: You do not know who you are, and you don’t really want to know, and even if you did, you wouldn’t know how to find out. Slattery seems to have thought that we know who we are, because he thought he knew he was really a woman, and that he knew how to become who he was through clothes and hormones. He was wrong, I think, on both counts.

We are all, if I may put it this way, and this is a line I may some day regret having written, transvestites. We all put on a vesture, a life, that we insist expresses who we really are. We’re all wearing the wrong clothes. Like Slattery, we find people to applaud the performance, who like us much better in the wrong clothes than they would were we wearing the right ones. No matter how clever he was, a Jimmy Slattery with a girlfriend would never have seen the inside of the Factory.

You can think of the obvious examples, when the space between the person and the persona grows too wide, or the rationalizations become too obvious, like the imperious man who lets his fears show or the selfish brute who discovers Nietzsche. People more spiritually or psychologically astute than I could describe the subtler cases.

Flannery O’Connor, for example, whose short stories often turn on a moment of sudden and usually painful self-knowledge. Or C. S. Lewis, whose expert devil Screwtape specialized in making sure his “patients” misunderstand themselves completely. Or even P. G. Wodehouse, whose comedy often depends on his characters living utterly without self-knowledge.

Or you could look in the mirror. While you must always be yourself, whatever the price, you really haven’t a clue who that is. You might not recognize the true you if you met him on the street.

Many of us suffer the haunting feeling that we are not exactly who we think we are, that we are wearing the wrong clothes, that we’re faking, though most of us probably feel this only intermittently. It only bothers me from time to time, though for what it’s worth I find that preparing for confession is usually one of those times, because I always worry that I’m going to get a very shrewd old priest. The reality bothers me more often in others than in myself, I’m afraid.

I’m not sure I can say this without sounding annoyingly pious, but there is an answer to this haunting feeling, and it’s an answer Christians were blessed to celebrate with pomp and circumstance this past weekend. If Good Friday expressed the problem, Easter solves it. In Jesus we see the man who is entirely and wholly and simply who he is, and in the Resurrection not only the divine imprimatur on his life but the promise that he will make us what he is.

“Behold the Man,” Pilate famously declared, not knowing what he said. As the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et spes put it, “[O]nly in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light . . . . Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”

Christ reveals man to himself, not just generically but particularly. He reveals you to yourself. If you truly want to know who you are, look at Jesus, and imitate him as best you can. Any small effort to do what he did makes you a tiny bit more ourselves and removes a little piece of whatever vesture you’ve put on. Taking up your cross, following him, losing your life for his sake: all modes of self-knowledge.

But the imitation of Christ doesn’t get us far enough. Even carrying our crosses, we remain very imperfectly ourselves. We’re still wearing the wrong clothes. We need to know more. We need a handbook.

Look at Christ, the priests and pastors say, and of course they should. Yet, oddly enough, it’s the easy thing to say. We don’t know enough about Jesus to feel too upset by calls to live like him, and the calls we treat as metaphors anyway. (We don’t see any real crosses to take up.) To become like Christ, we need to look also at the rest of Scripture and to the Church’s developed tradition, which offer a wisdom that spells out in greater detail what Jesus wants from and of us.

No one objects to being told to live like Jesus. But to live the way St. Paul says to live, or the way the Catechism of the Catholic Church says to live, that we dislike. Being chaste, or giving alms, or stifling our desire for profit, or going to confession, or watching our language, or suffering a fool gladly, that rankles, especially if we have to do it. But through obedience to the accumulated and refined wisdom of the Church, we become who we really are.

James Slattery does not seem to have been able to become who he really was, despite living the moral life he promoted. Trying to be who he was on his own terms didn’t work out well for him.

In a letter written on his deathbed to Warhol and his circle, he wrote that “Unfortunately before my death I had no desire left for life . . . . I am just so bored by everything. You might say bored to death. (D)id you know I couldn’t last. I always knew it. I wish I could meet you all again.” To have lived such a life and still have been bored to death, that is haunting.

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. “Everyone Walks on the Wild Side” appeared on the “On the Square” section of First Things’ website on April 25, 2011.

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Particular Loves, In This World and the Next

We could see his sister in the next room, standing up straight, alert, obviously happy to meet the stranger who had unexpectedly asked to see her. He stood in the room facing us, shrinking back a bit, with a nervous look on his face, watching us carefully while he peed on the floor. It was a little awkward, with the person who had introduced us leaning against the door and grinning, hoping we’d hit it off, as the puddle of urine grew and eventually flowed across the floor and out between his front paws.

We took him home from the Humane Society that day, and in the fourteen happy years since I’ve often thought that if we hadn’t, no one would. An adorable, classic golden-haired mutt with big eyes and long floppy ears, he was still utterly pathetic, and not in a winsome way. Some bored veterinarian’s assistant would have pumped him full of whatever drug they use, and then put the body in the incinerator bin.

A few days ago, Ben suddenly stopped eating, and eventually laid down on his bed in the kitchen and spent the day sleeping fitfully. He lapsed into a coma, and a few hours later, with our two sons sitting by him, died. They shook him, because you always hope you’re wrong, but of course they weren’t.

Our eldest, whose dog he had been, was coming home the next day for a weekend visit. My wife called her with the news, and she burst out, “Just one more day!” But that would have been the kind of ending that happens in books and only rarely in life.

The death of a beloved dog naturally raises for many of us the question of his possible immortality. And not just the death of dogs, but of the other animals who seem to have personalities and to us seem to become friends, like horses and (I would like to think) guinea pigs. The question doesn’t really arise for those that don’t, that seem to be creatures entirely of instinct (and sometimes evil instinct, from the human point of view), like hamsters, turtles, parrots, snakes, tarantulas, and house cats.

Yes, of course different cultures view animals in different ways, and the affluent West gives pets a place they don’t have elsewhere (though I wonder if the shepherd in the desert sees his dog simply as an tool and does not feel for him what we feel), and the affection some people feel for their animals would be pathological were it directed to their children, and what we may feel to be personality is only instinct, even in dogs. Yes, true, all of that, but we hope anyway because we loved Ben, even if our feelings may have been culturally determined and scientifically naive.

We have no biblical warrant for the hope, and apparently no theological warrant either, animals having no souls and therefore nothing that can last into the afterlife. But still, we hope. It is natural and right to hope that love will last beyond death, including the lesser love we may have for a dog.

Even the hard-boiled realist grieves at the death of Spot or Rover, grieving at his death as something that should not be, a loss we should not sustain, and his grief at least hints to us that we may hope that in the end we should not sustain it. Even he buries his old dog and marks the grave.

My friend Darryl Hart doesn’t deny that hope, though he does call it “eery.” Yet he also suggests that is not the whole story. (And he buried his cat, and marked the grave with a big piece of slate.) Even if, he writes,

an animal has no soul, even if it cannot worship its maker, even if it will not be resurrected either for eternal life or destruction”even if it is an it”it is way more spiritual than many of the creations with which humans share the planet . . . . Twice in that Psalm of the Sons of Korah [49] comes the refrain, “Man cannot abide in his pomp, he is like the beasts that perish.” . . . [I]t does liken an animal to man, the crown of the created order. Granted, the beast is only as good as man without his dignity. But that is obviously an upgrade from those parts of creation without souls or spirits.

C. S. Lewis built upon this idea in his own argument for the possible survival of the animals men have loved. “You must not think of a beast by itself, and call that a personality and then inquire whether God will raise and bless that,” he wrote in The Problem of Pain.

You must take the whole context in which the beast acquires its selfhood”namely “The-goodman-and-the-goodwife-ruling-their-children-and-their-beasts-in-the-good-homestead.” The whole context may be regarded as a “body” in the Pauline (or a closely sub-Pauline) sense; and how much of that “body” may be raised along with the goodman and goodwife, who can predict? . . . If you ask, concerning an animal thus raised as a member of the whole Body of the homestead, where its personal identity resides, I answer, “Where its identity always did reside even in the earthly life”in its relation to the Body and, specially, to the master who is the head of that Body.” In other words, the man will know his dog: the dog will know its master, and, in knowing him, will be itself.

I’d like to think he had the answer,  thinking about Ben, remembering what he meant to our first child, and also to our last, born a year after we got him and within a year dashing his hopes of rising from the bottom of the pack; and how when called he would, from any place in the house, detour around the dining room table in the hope (inevitably vain) of finding food; of his joy in chasing down a thrown ball or stick and his inability to remember what he was supposed to do with it; of his implacable hatred for our neighbor’s cat Paws, whose step across our yard he could hear though (I am not making this up) the windows were closed, the stereo was playing, and he was sound asleep.

I’d like to think Lewis had the answer, thinking of Ben’s ecstasy when he heard the word “walk” and his wetting the floor when he heard the word “bath,” and how he eventually learned every euphemism for “bath” we could think of, and duly wet the floor once he learned them; of how he would snarl at anyone wearing black yet want to play with them if he saw them again in other clothes; of how we knew that, should a burglar walk in and pet him, he would escort the burglar around the house, wagging his tail as the man took everything he wanted to take; of how he could hear from upstairs and through closed doors the tiniest piece of bread dropped into his dish and would come running; of his constant loyalty and affection and good nature.

Love demands the particular things that have been loved. We hope for Heaven, and for those things that will, as far as we can tell now, make Heaven more heavenly. My family doesn’t want the ideal golden-haired mutt romping with us around the New Jerusalem. He will be perfect, but he won’t be good enough. We want to see Ben, because he is the dog we loved, even if he keeps wetting the golden streets.

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. “Particular Loves” appeared in “On the Square” section of First Things’ website on June 13, 2011.

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Real Death, Real Dignity

He was a dignified man suffering all the embarrassing ways a hospice deals with the body’s failure as cancer begins shutting down the organs. Dying in a hospice, you lose all rights to modesty as you lose control of your body. Few men could have found the indignities of those last few weeks of life more excruciating than did my father.

The man who was always in control depended entirely on the help of others, most of them strangers, most of them nurses’ aides, cheerful young women the age of his granddaughter. The man who was always doing something constructive could not move from his bed. The man who had always made his words count could not speak. The man who was always reserved could hide nothing, keep nothing to himself.

I did not want to see him there. This was what dying of cancer is like, and my father, being the man he was, took it like a man. It was the hand he’d been dealt, and he was going to play it, as bad as it was.

Though he died five years ago, in bookstores I still find myself starting to buy a book I know he’ll like, and thinking as I start to pull it off the shelf, “No, wait,” or deciding to ask his advice on a matter great or small, and thinking as I reach for my phone, “No, wait.” Every time I feel that sharp burning pain behind the sternum you get when your body panics and floods itself with adrenalin. The world has a hole in it and one that will never be filled in this life.

It is a great blessing to be with your father as he dies, though mercifully a blessing you will enjoy only once. I was sitting in his room at the hospice, my wife and children having run round the corner to get lunch, my mother having lunch with an old friend round another corner, my sister up the road at her job running a thrift store. He had, as far as we knew, as far as the doctors knew, weeks to live.

I had been there for a couple of hours, editing something on my laptop, focused on the work, when suddenly I knew, I don’t know how, other than Grace, that he was breathing his last. He drew in a short, hard breath. I knelt by his head and said, “Goodbye, dad.” He drew in a shorter, shallower breath, almost a half-breath, and then stopped.

I went to get the nurse, waving my hand toward the room because I could not speak. She came in, listened for a heartbeat, and I stood hoping I was wrong, that I’d missed something, that I was going to be embarrassed, till she shook her head at another nurse who had come into the room behind me.

Being there was, as I say, a great blessing. At least, it is a great blessing to be with your father when he dies if he died the way mine did. He did not die with dignity, as those who promote “death with dignity” define it, which means, in essence, to die as if you weren’t dying.

It is not dignified to be undressed and dressed by cheerful young women the age of your granddaughter. It is not dignified to waste away, to lose the ability to speak, to eat, to drink. It is not dignified for your children and grandchildren to see you that way. It is not dignified to die when death takes you and not when you choose.

I can see the appeal of “death with dignity” and programs like those offered in Oregon and the Netherlands, where doctors will help you leave this world at the moment of your choosing, without fuss or bother or pain. I do not want to die and I really, really do not want to die the way my father did. I would find the indignities as excruciating as he did, and I have no confidence I would deal with the pain as bravely as he. I would not want my children to see me so pathetic.

“Death with dignity” seems to offer not only an escape from pain and humiliation but a rational and apparently noble way to leave this life. You look death in the eye and show him that you, not he, are in control. All “dying with dignity” requires is that you declare yourself God. Make yourself the lord of life and death, and you can do what you want. All you have to do, as a last, definitive act, is to do what you’ve been doing all your life: Declare yourself, on the matter at hand, the final authority, the last judge, the one vote that counts.

But you are not God, and, the Christian believes, the decision of when to leave this life is not one He has delegated to you. It is not your call. The Father expects you to suffer if you are given suffering and to put up with indignities if you are given indignities. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord. And that, as far as dying goes, is that.

This is not, from a worldly point of view, a comforting or comfortable teaching. It is one much easier for Christians to observe in theory than in practice, and to apply to other people than to themselves. In practice, we will want to die “with dignity.”

My father was an engineer. I’m not sure if he read a theological book in his life. The questions that interested me bemused him. But he knew who he was and what he was called to do, a condition others would put in a theological language I suspect he thought was unnecessary. He was dying. That was his job, and he would do it as well as he could.

Lying in a hospice bed, in the very last situation he would have chosen for himself, my father taught me that to die with dignity means to accept what God has given you and deal with it till the end. It means to play the hand God has dealt you, no matter how bad a hand it is, without folding. It means actually to live as if the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, and in either case blessed be the name of the Lord.

It’s dignity of a different sort than the corruptingly euphemistic slogan “death with dignity” suggests. There is a great — an eternal — dignity in accepting whatever indignities you have to suffer to remain faithful to God and to do what He has given you to do. A man can be humiliated and yet noble, and the humiliations make the nobility all the more obvious. My father died with dignity, though the advocates of euthanasia and the clean, quick, controlled exit might not think so.

Here my father held a line he probably did not recognize, a line that protects the vulnerable. He would never have said this, and would have thought the idea pretentious. But by living as if his life was not his to give up he also declared in the most practical way possible that the lives of the vulnerable are not for others to take. There are only a few steps from declaring that a man may choose to be killed to choosing death for those who cannot choose for themselves. The vulnerable are protected by those who refuse the choice.

The man who chooses the timing and meaning of his own death has looked death in the eye and shown him that he is in control—but only by giving death what he demands even sooner than he demands it. That, presumably, is a deal death will take. My father, lying in the bed by the window in a hospice he would never leave, offered death no deal at all.

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. “Real Death, Real Dignity” appeared in the March 2011 issue of First Things.

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The Anxious Parent

The trampoline, that upset them. We bought one of the big round ones for our eldest’s sixteenth birthday, and parents we knew (mothers more than fathers) were appalled that we’d bought such a dangerous thing and horrified that our children were allowed to jump on it when we were not outside with them. Some insisted on telling us that they were appalled and horrified, and on parading before us their own meticulous care for their children and their anticipation and avoidance of all the possible dangers with which this sad world is loaded. It’s very nice for Julian of Norwich to say, “And all manner of things shall be well,” but she didn’t have children.

Once our youngest son and another boy, both seven or eight, were bouncing from opposite sides of the trampoline and bumping into each other in the middle, laughing hysterically as they fell down. Neither was a physically adventurous child, and they collided very gently. They loved the game and would have played it for hours.

The other boy’s father and I were talking while we watched them, when the boy’s mother came over, drew her husband aside, and dressed him down in one of those hissed conversations that carry farther than intended. She was shocked at his carelessness in letting their son do something so dangerous. He came back and broke up the game. The boys sagged when told to get off the trampoline.

If our older son had played the same game at the same age with his friends, they would have been bruised and possibly bloody, and the bruises and the blood would have been part of the pleasure. I can hear him telling the story later, in an excited, slightly boastful voice, explaining how we were knocking each other down and then we ran into each other really hard and we both got bloody noses and, Mom, there was blood all over the place ! And he would have been a happier boy for it.

Sometimes I feel we are the only parents left who would enjoy hearing our son say that there was blood all over the place. Of course there are others. But in certain areas and in certain social circles, not many. And in certain family sizes, like those with one or two children, very few.

Not then being Catholic, I didn’t pay much attention when John Paul II was elected, nor to his first sermon as pope, but some years later, when I first came across his declaration “Be not afraid,” I thought it a pretty lame declaration with which to start one’s work. It seemed a platitude like “brush between meals” and “eat more fiber,” not a call to arms. Yeah, sure, whatever, I thought. Biblical slogans are a dime a dozen.

But I was still young then and had not seen how many ways the world has to make you afraid. Just have children, and a world of imagined and unimaginable horrors will present itself to you, and minor inconveniences or hurts will appear to be losses from which your child will never recover, and every decision and choice one that can lead as easily to misery as to success. Affluence does not make you feel more secure, but just multiplies the reasons you can find to be afraid and increases the triviality of the results you fear.

I had not seen how hopes quickly become fears, and how the deepest hopes become the worst fears, and how the fallen heart can manufacture reasons to be afraid. Not that the manufacturing of fear is hard. There are the bad drivers (bicycles being as intrinsically dangerous as trampolines). There’s the internet and the pornography it makes instantly available. There are bad companions, even the cherubic-looking children from conservative religious families. There are the subtle effects of even mainstream entertainment’s essential secularism, portraying as normal a world in which religion has no place and marriage is only one among several lifestyle options. There are, there are, there are . . . .

Being young, I had not seen how easily one can begin to live in constant and intense anxiety, even from blessings like education. It doesn’t matter what your principles are. You might believe, sincerely, when your child is eight or ten that the only education you want for him is one that will teach him what he needs to know about literature and art and history, which can be provided at any number of schools, including the cheap and unknown ones.

You imagine him taking his degree from some obscure college, getting a job, and reading Shakespeare for fun in the evening, surrounded by the children he had while his driven peers sacrificed everything for their careers. You can feel a little smug about the parents you know who spend thousands to get their children into the best schools and then put the decal with the school’s name on the back window of their car.

But when your child reaches sixteen or seventeen, you think of how hard the job market can be, and how soul-destroying are so many jobs, and how insecure and unstable they are, and how hard it will be to marry and start a family with that kind of job, and what advantages accrue from graduating from the better colleges, and how much better than others some of the better colleges are, and then how hard the best ones are to get into. You hear the horror stories of top students rejected, hear about the competition’s advantages, with wealthy parents buying their dullard all the tutoring and application-padding experiences he needs, hear about the notoriously hard and irrational grader your child has to take next semester.

Suddenly you fear that your child will only get into the obscure college and his life will be ruined, or at least that he will always have to struggle to make a living and never be able to do what he otherwise could. The trampoline is one thing, but college another. You may know that this feeling is foolish, but knowing that you are being foolish does not make you any less anxious. Suddenly you’re as neurotic and fearful and driving and hovering as the parents you used to look down upon.

We fail, as a friend pointed out, in teleology. One forgets what man is for and to what ends children are called. If you do not really believe that the child has an eternal destiny, and therefore believe that the achievements about which we are so concerned, like admission to a good college, are only this-worldly ones, the value of things like acquiring a certain boldness of spirit by jumping on a trampoline will never justify the risks. You will always err not on the side of caution but on the side of inaction.

It is not a way to raise children with eternal callings and destinies, the pursuit of which requires a degree of insouciance and courage, like the fishermen who dropped their nets, and their livelihood, to follow a wandering teacher. Especially as that destiny might include an early death, as Frederick Faber put it in that startling second verse of “Faith of Our Fathers”: “Our fathers, chained in prisons dark, / Were still in heart and conscience free; / And blest would be their children’s fate, / If they, like them, should die for thee.”

Our Lord says, “Be not afraid,” and thereby directs our work as parents to its proper ends. Your child can be a saint with a degree from the obscure college as well as the elite one, and perhaps more easily. For that life jumping on a trampoline may be very good training. The parent serves his child best who does not fear for the means because Christ has secured the end.

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. “The Anxious Parent” appeared in the January 2003 issue of First Things.

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What’s Sauce for the Goose

Catholic Sense 15

What’s Sauce for the Goose

By David Mills

There you are, minding your own business, going to work, going to Mass, hanging out at home, talking to your neighbors, complaining about the Pirates, when Whammo! someone suggests that you’re an idiot. The kind of idiot who’d buy the deed to a bar in downtown Mecca because the seller promised you a huge profit and the admiration of your neighbors.

Or better: the kind of idiot who buys one of those expensive exercise machines because the ads say that by exercising for just five minutes a day for just three months you can have the body of an Olympic gymnast! Without giving up rocky road ice cream, half-pound hamburgers, or barbecue potato chips!

I’m thinking of those times when someone, completely out of blue, criticizes Christianity or the Catholic Church in particular. Someone tells you that you are a Christian because you’re not very smart, or that you want to get something for nothing, or that you can’t face the world without the crutch of religion, or that you’re too lazy to think for yourself, or that you’ve grown up with it and don’t want to change.

The people who tell you this can be the nicest people you know, too. They often smile at you as they dismiss the faith on which you’ve built your life, apparently thinking you’re not going to be offended. They speak as if they’re just teasing you about your funny tie or your taste for fat romantic novels.

They usually don’t have much of a reason. They may say something about evolution or offer some crack-brained history from a book like The da Vinci Code or point to children with leukemia or invoke the Crusades or the Inquisition or the trial of Galileo.

They may even blame the Catholic Church for health-and-wealth-gospel televangelists and Mormon polygamist cults or even (I have actually heard this done) for Muslim fundamentalists. Some people apparently think that all religions are the same, so anyone who believes in God is guilty of the sins of anyone else who believes in God, whether or not the God they believe in is the same God.

If they’ve read a little, they’ll tell you that the Church developed its institutions and its doctrines to increase its own power. We don’t have the papacy because Jesus gave it to us. We have it because the bishops of Rome wanted more control over the Church and the world and made up a doctrine of the Church that justified their taking it.

If you are like me, you never know what to say. You feel you ought to say something, because your faith and through it your Savior is being attacked. If other people are listening, they might think that the critic has a point if you don’t protest.

But you know any defense you can mount is likely, as parents say when watching little children begin to fight over a toy, to end in tears. In some cases, you know there’s a good answer, but you don’t know it. In others, you may know the answer but know it won’t make any difference. Someone who can so smugly sweep away an entire religious tradition that has obviously brought a vast amount of good to the world, is not likely to argue fairly.

If you do happen to know the answer and be good at arguing, and are calm enough not to get flustered or angry, you might try to challenge the critic. You probably won’t change his mind, but you might at least show anyone listening that there is something to be said for the Church.

Even if you don’t know the answer or aren’t good at arguing, you may still want to say something. You might just ask the critic, “Well, what do you believe? What are you a member of?” What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, as my grandmother liked to say.

If he admits to having some institutional commitment, religious or not, you might ask him, “And no one in your tradition has ever done anything bad? Do you really want to be held responsible for their sins? Be fair, that’s the rule you’ve set for Christianity.”

If he claims to be an atheist or rationalist or freethinker, you might ask him, “So, to use your own standard, you’ll take responsibility for all the crimes committed by people who didn’t believe in God?” Like the Chinese tyrant Mao, whose Cultural Revolution of the sixties may have been the greatest human rights violation in human history. Or Stalin, who murdered tens of millions of innocent people and terrorized his own country for decades. Secularism’s body count in much, much, much higher than Christianity’s.

I don’t predict much success, but you might at least make the critic pause the next time he wants to dismiss Christianity so easily, and that’s something.

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. This column appeared in the Pittsburgh Catholic on February 26, 2010.

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Searching the Scriptures and Finding the Church

Catholic Sense 14

Searching the Scriptures and Finding the Church

By David Mills

Perhaps the criticism our Protestant friends most often make of the Catholic Church is that she doesn’t really believe the Bible. They will say, “You may have your Church tradition but we have the Scriptures,” as one might way, “You may have a pair of twos but I have a full house.”

They may then thrust upon you all sorts of quotes about Scripture from the Bible itself and demand to know what you have to say, as if all these verses obviously disprove the Catholic teaching about Scripture and Tradition. They sometimes say this with all the satisfaction of a policeman who’s just caught you in the bank vault at the three in the morning.

I have seen Catholics get very discouraged by this. Piling on the Scriptures sometimes works just because most of us aren’t that quick on our feet. We assume the argument must be a good one because the person makes it with such certainty, or else we just get buried under the mass of verses, like a rookie quarterback when all three linebackers blitz.

There is a simple way of responding, however, whether the critic has produced one or twenty verses. Ask him: “How exactly does that disprove Catholic teaching?” The answer in every single case will be, if he is honest, “It doesn’t.”

It doesn’t disprove Catholic teaching because it can’t. The Church asserts the inerrancy of Scripture, and therefore nothing she teaches about Scripture will contradict what Scripture says about itself.

The people who articulated the Church’s teaching weren’t stupid enough to say something anyone could disprove with a simple quote from the Bible. They read the Bible too. They read it very carefully. They looked to it as an authority. This argument is a bit like claiming that Einstein made such a blunder that a twelve-year-old kid in Iowa with a cheap telescope could spot it.

As it happens, the verses some people produce don’t in fact teach that Scripture is the sole authority for Christians. All they say is that Scripture is to be revered, studied, and followed, and this the Church teaches too. The Bible itself doesn’t say — it doesn’t even imply — that the Christian only needs the Bible to know everything he ought to know.

As the Second Vatican Council put it in Dei Verbum: the Scriptures “firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.” The authors “consigned to writing whatever he [God] wanted written, and no more.” As Dei Verbum explains, he wanted other truths passed on to us in other ways, which it calls “Sacred Tradition.”

One reader of the sixth column, “It is Too in the Bible,” sent me a long list of verses that she insisted disproved Catholic teaching. They were not convincing. If anything, they proved the opposite.

Let me take one example. She invoked the verses in Acts that describe the people of Berea responding enthusiastically to St. Paul’s message and examining the Scriptures (our Old Testament) to see if he was right (Acts 17:10-11). Her argument seemed to be that the Bereans depended only upon Scripture to find the truth and didn’t need any tradition at all, and that the author of Acts praises them for this, and therefore that is the way we ought to read Scripture.

This is not actually the story those verses tell. The Bereans search the Scriptures to find out if Jesus is who this visiting preacher says he is. They had to receive the tradition of the Church through Paul even to know what to look for. They had not seen Jesus in their Scriptures before that, because they did not have the Church’s tradition to tell them he was there. In other words, they had to know something the Bible didn’t tell them to know what the Bible was really telling them. (Jesus did this himself with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.)

Paul undoubtedly also told them about the first Christians, especially the apostles, and about events like Pentecost, and about the way Christians lived, not least about the sacraments and morality. These were all things they had to know if they were to live as followers of Christ, things that had to be handed on to them (the word “tradition” means handed on) their Scriptures did not tell them.

The Church today comes to us as St. Paul came to the Bereans. She says “Here is what you need to know to see what the Scriptures really say, and here are many other things you need to know as well.” The Scriptures themselves teach us that we need Sacred Tradition if we are to be faithful to Scripture.

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. This column appeared in the Pittsburgh Catholic on February 12, 2010.

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The Snob’s Dogma

The Snob’s Dogma

David Mills on Modernizing the Gospels

In the 1930s, the New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann declared that people who use electric lights cannot believe in the supernatural world described in the Bible. He meant that modern man cannot believe in the biblical miracle stories, including the story of the Incarnation. This assertion he did not, as far as I know, ever defend, yet it justified his attempt to “de-mythologize” the Bible.

It certainly seems a dubious idea, aside from the plain fact that all sorts of learned men and women flip light switches and believe in God at the very same time. Even if one asserts, as I think Bultmann would have done, that these people have somehow kept a premodern mind while living in the modern world, the idea that greater knowledge of the world around us must change our knowledge of the other world does not make sense. That we can in nature discover and use forces like electricity does not mean that we have made up the story of a supernature that has revealed itself to us. If anything, it suggests the opposite, for a design of such complexity implies the existence of a Designer.

In our own day, an Episcopal bishop has said the same thing and said it as bluntly as Bultmann. He declared that people who fly in jet airplanes cannot believe in the God of the Bible, although (1) a lot of us do both and are actually intelligent (he would doubt this), and (2) the invention of the jet engine can tell us nothing whatever about whether the Son of God became man.

That we can do more and more in the world does not tell us who or what created and maintains the cosmos. You might as well say that the people who first used rocks to grind their corn could no longer believe in the gods of their fathers, or that the bishop’s children cannot accept his God — whoever, exactly, that is — because the computer was invented after he was born. Or the space shuttle, digital television, and fluoride toothpaste.

To claim the authority of science to justify liberalism is cheating. “A man can be a Christian at the end of the world, for the simple reason that a man could have been an atheist from the beginning of it,” G. K. Chesterton explained in All Things Considered. The case for atheism was the obvious one and did not need modern science at all.

A man who has lived and loved falls down dead and the worms eat him. That is materialism if you like. That is atheism if you like. If mankind has believed in spite of that, it can believe in spite of anything. But why our human lot is made any more hopeless because we know the names of all the worms that eat him, or the names of all the parts of him that they eat, is to a thoughtful mind somewhat difficult to discover.

The skeptics usually invoke modern man’s greater knowledge of the physical world and try to associate belief in the Christian God with belief in a flat earth. They often use the tools of sociology and psychology to explain away religious belief, as when they claim that people believed in spiritual creatures like demons because they did not know anything about abnormal psychology. Sometimes they insist that modern man’s greater tolerance is proof that the old views can no longer be held, though the number of people killed by their governments in the last century makes this claim, to use the current academic jargon, “problematic.”

In any case, it is a silly idea, the claim that new inventions have made religious belief impossible, but it is the idea upon which much modern liberalism rests.

The Modern Mind
It is a settled conviction of a certain sort of modern mind — which tends to call itself the modern mind, to put the rest of us in our place — that something happened in the last few hundred years to make the Bible fundamentally unbelievable. For Bultmann this event is symbolized in the electric light, for the bishop in the jet airplane.

They tend not to argue for this assertion, beyond noting that astronomy and geology have disproved a literalistic reading of the first few chapters of Genesis, and that fewer people in the West believe in Christianity now than did 100 years ago (but more, some of us would note, than believed it in the days after the Resurrection). Their declaration that no one can believe in Christianity anymore is just as dogmatic as the Christian’s assertion that one can. But not as easily proved: the Christian has the advantage that he can prove his assertion by walking into a church and pointing at the believers.

To have a religion at all, no matter how vague and thin, one must have a canon or rule. The skeptic’s canon includes some vision of the nature and the needs of modern man, about which he is not at all skeptical. Knowing this, the Christian asks him the simple question: “Why?” It is not obvious that human nature has changed, nor is it obvious that the modern world could not exist were the Christian God real. It is not obvious that the skeptics of today are any more insightful than the Jews following a cloud through the wilderness and accepting a set of laws given to their leader upon a mountain. It is not obvious that the skeptics know the truth more fully than the close friends of an itinerant preacher, who’d seen him die and suddenly found him alive again.

It is just as easy to turn your back on the cloud as to look at it, and before we accept a man’s assertion that there is no cloud and never was a cloud, we have to ask which way he is facing and why he is refusing to turn around. He might, after all, just not like God. He might hate to follow anyone, even God. He might know the God of the cloud will order him to change his ways, and rather than say no, he will refuse to see the cloud.

The Christian assumes, not unreasonably, and not naively, that the man of today and the man of ancient Palestine are both men, made in the image of God, which does not change. We assume that a man in Jerusalem in the first century would feel about roses the way we do, because we know men and roses. The modern skeptic really assumes that the man in ancient Jerusalem might have responded to roses as we respond to dandelions or stinkweed.

We cannot disprove the skeptic, of course, the men of ancient Palestine being long dead. But we know enough to reject his description of their lives and his dismissal of the reports of the small band who followed Jesus. We are sure that the men of ancient Palestine knew a dead body when they saw it, and knew a resurrected body when they saw it later. We are sure that no intense experience of a mortal man, no matter how great he was, could have produced a movement that lived as the early Christians lived, that no mass hysteria could have produced the gospel stories.

Certainly, people differ in deep and subtle ways from age to age, but Christians believe that these differences do not so finally sunder us from the people of the past, and certainly not from the Jewish people whose descendants and debtors we are. In these cases the real differences are much like differences in language. We can learn another language, admittedly imperfectly but still well, and we can turn to translators who know both languages and can tell us what those otherwise inexplicable noises mean. We can know what the Frenchman and the Thai and the Laplander mean, especially when they are relaying facts, because we are all men speaking human languages.

The Differences
The differences between people of different ages are in fact of the type C. S. Lewis described in tracing a common moral tradition across times and cultures in the appendix to The Abolition of Man. “Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four,” he noted inMere Christianity.“But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.” We find differences, sometimes quite startling, but nevertheless a more significant agreement.

We recognize, even those of us with harems, the same moral law. The average modern man holds it, though he may hold it in one of the impure forms (for what is serial monogamy but a form of polygamy?). The extraordinary sharing of a moral code is a hint that modern man is not so different from his ancestors as the skeptics declare. To the extent that the skeptic’s modern man rejects that code, he is a freak from whose life no judgments may safely be made. Simply from the scientific point of view, to make the exception your rule will probably invalidate your observations. Imagine the scientist who took the duckbilled platypus as the archetypal mammal, or the octopus as the archetypal fish.

The similarity in mythology from culture to culture and age to age is another hint. The skeptics often assert that the parallels in the pagan myths to the Christian stories disprove Christianity, because Christianity must either have borrowed the stories from its predecessors or made up the same stories because all sorts of people for some reason continually make up the same sort of stories.

This might be true, but the Christian would give another answer, as defensible as the skeptic’s. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “If the Christian God really made the human race, would not the human race tend to rumours and perversions of the Christian God? . . . If we are so made that a Son of God must deliver us, is it odd that Patagonians should dream of a Son of God?” The skeptical position, he concluded, “really amounts to this — that because a certain thing has impressed millions of different people as likely or necessary, therefore it cannot be true.”

The Christian is allowed to be skeptical about the skeptic’s settled belief, as it seems to rest on what Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” We have electric lights and jet airplanes; therefore we know that the Son of God incarnate did not rise from the dead. “It is incomprehensible that any thinker can calmly call himself a modernist; he might as well call himself a Thursdayite,” Chesterton wrote. When someone objects to the report of a miracle because we are living in the twenty-first century, his objection “has on the whole rather less sense or meaning than saying, ‘But my dear fellow, this is Tuesday afternoon.’”

The liberals do not give very good reasons for being such snobs. They rely for their authority and their flattering idea of themselves upon the passage of time, as some children rely for their status on the playground upon their family’s ancestry. The man who calls himself a “modern man” and dismisses the faith of the believer as ignorant or superstitious is like a character who appears in a lot of movies: the rich boy who believes himself the superior of everyone around him because he has much more money than they do and lives in a bigger house with more powerful parents, but who is actually stupid, vulgar, and useless, and often the despair of his father. The boy almost always comes to a bad end.

Skeptical Invention
The skeptic, having declared his freedom from the Christian tradition, is left free to invent more or less anything he wants. He can mine the tradition for the useful bits, which he will describe as the lasting truths carried in the now irrelevant ideas and worldview and hidden in the now unnecessary mythology. He may even call the bits he has accepted a revelation and may even ascribe it to God.

This has its advantages, if all one wants is the freedom to invent one’s own form of Christianity. It has only the great disadvantage that it rests upon the dubious dogmatic assertion that a man of the twenty-first century cannot believe in the supernatural. If the skeptic is wrong, he has turned his back on the most important truths of the cosmos, just because he felt himself too grown up to believe them.

The author would like to acknowledge the help of his colleague Rodney Whitacre.

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. “The Snob’s Dogma” appeared in the November 2002 issue of Touchstone

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St. Paul the Eccentric

St. Paul the Eccentric

David Mills on separating Jesus from St. Paul

In my files is the newsletter of a famous Episcopal parish in New York City. On one page is a sermon by its recently retired rector, in which he spoke of worship as “but the means of bringing us close to the source of our faith, and that source is very simply Our Lord Jesus Christ.” He then not only proclaimed his belief in the Virgin Birth but in the Immaculate Conception as well.

On the facing page was a response by the parish’s trustees to the assertion of the 1998 Lambeth Conference (the last meeting of the world’s Anglican bishops) that homosexual practices are “incompatible with Scripture.” The trustees declared their parish “a faith community in which membership and opportunity for lay and ordained ministry shall not be restricted on the basis of sexual orientation.” By “orientation,” let me be clear, they meant to include the practice thereof.

And in his sermon, the former rector himself promoted the approval of homosexuality, as well as the ordination of women. These innovations, apparently in contradiction to the teaching of St. Paul, he must have believed expressed the will of “the source of our faith.”

Separating Gospels from Epistles
What, one thinks, have we here? On the one hand a very, very high view not only of the Incarnation but also of our Lord’s mother herself, as deeply traditionalist as anyone could wish, and on the other hand a willful rejection of Scripture’s moral teaching.

This is a now common problem in Western Christianity, Catholic and Protestant: the Christian who believes that Jesus of Nazareth is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, and who also almost completely rejects the unfashionable teachings of the Bible found outside the four gospels. As our society becomes more and more interested in “spirituality,” we find more and more people talking in very traditional terms about Jesus while assuming that the Scripture in which he is revealed has little or nothing to say about any part of their lives they wish to keep to themselves.

These people in effect separate the gospels they accept — partly, perhaps, because they have not read them closely enough — from the epistles they reject. It is usually St. Paul whose words they reject. The other New Testament writers they usually ignore, perhaps because they did not say anything so offensive to modern ears as St. Paul’s instructions on men, women, and sexuality. They do not reject even Paul’s epistles entirely, of course, as they accept those verses, most famously Galatians 3:28, that taken out of context prove so useful.

Those who think this way often divide Jesus the gentle prophet of inclusive love (or however the favorite Jesus of the moment is described) from St. Paul the rule-maker, and sometimes also divide St. Paul the apostle of freedom from St. Paul the unreformed Pharisee, early Catholic, and the like. Sometimes they simply talk a lot about Jesus and pretend that St. Paul did not exist. The first tactic seems to have been the more popular some decades ago, while the latter seems now to be the more popular of the two. It is certainly shrewder to forget to invite St. Paul to the party than to invite him and then pick a fight with him in front of the guests.

A few years ago, Virginia Theological Seminary decided to admit students living in homosexual relationships and to let them live together on campus, if their sponsoring bishops approved. They replaced their catalogue’s “Policy Statement on Norms of Sexual Behavior” with one called “A Call to a Holy Life,” which the dean called “more in keeping with the biblical balance of the Christian tradition.”

The new call began by saying that “trustees, faculty and students of the Seminary community are expected to be wholesome examples of persons called to a holy life.” This life it defined as “not an achievement but a gift of God’s grace that comes to those whose lives are grounded in Holy Scripture, enriched and disciplined in the community of faith, and focused on Christ as the companion and end of life’s pilgrimage.”

It sounds religious. It is “focused on Christ.” It is just not in its content firmly or specifically Christian. St. Paul doesn’t put in an appearance.

The Explanation
To explain the absence of St. Paul from their teaching, should anyone object, these people will often say that they are preaching the “core” or the “center” of the Faith, the part that really matters. The more sophisticated may explain that they read the New Testament through Jesus, that their hermeneutic is “Christological,” but that the Jesus they follow is one freed from the distortions the gospel writers inevitably added. If they are conservative, they may say that they are “keeping the main thing the main thing,” are not letting themselves and their parishes be distracted by “issues,” and are “focusing on the Gospel.”

This is, in a sense, true. St. Paul defines his own mission as “I preach Christ, and him crucified,” not “I have instructions for you about sexuality and headship and similar subjects.” The Christian looks always to Christ and therefore listens to his words as recorded in the four Gospels. He does read the New Testament through Jesus and believe him the center of the faith.

But he looks also to those who speak for the Lord with his authority. The Christian who claims to love Jesus but ignores or spurns his spokesmen is like a soldier going into battle having pledged obedience to the general but refusing to take orders from the captains and lieutenants he has put in command. The officers are not only the general’s deputies but also the men whose job it is to relay the details that effect his wider vision and plan. Their commands are his commands.

The biblical revelation is, for Christians, a whole. It is still such, officially, even for mainline Christians: In the eucharistic Liturgy of most churches, the reader declares at the end of each lesson, Old Testament and Epistle as well as Gospel, “The word of the Lord.” (I am told that in some Episcopal seminaries students have reverted to using the old Prayer Book’s “Here ends the lesson” when they don’t approve of it.)

The Bible is all of a piece: a very complex piece, obviously, and one in which the relations of the parts are not always obvious (people still argue over the relation of Paul on faith to James on works), and in which some parts seem to have no purpose at all (most preachers I’ve heard just skip over the genealogies). This complexity does not mean, as modern scholars often assume, that the revelation is incoherent and contradictory. It may be, as Christians believe, subtle and sophisticated, its unity only partly visible to fallen man.

The Christian responds to this complexity not by choosing what he will accept and what he won’t, but by studying and obeying the texts, and thus coming to understand them more deeply and surely and to see something of the unity beneath or behind the diversity. The unlearned and the young in the Faith can borrow from the learning and wisdom of others, who can explain the agreement of Paul and James and the reasons for the genealogies.

One can reject this idea of Scripture. One can, with perfect logic, separate the gospels from the epistles, and even parts of the gospels from the rest of the gospels. There is no intrinsic reason to read the Bible as Christians have always read it. You can, if you want, treat the Bible as a collection of texts to be reviewed and used as you think best.

It is perfectly rational to claim, as the sort of liberal we are discussing does, that Jesus himself was a special revelation of God’s love for man, which can be seen in the gospels (imperfect as they are) but was badly distorted in the epistles, especially those of St. Paul, who could (says the liberal) rise to the heights of Galatians 3:28 but sink to the depths of Romans 1:26. One can do this and retain a religion in shape and language still Christian, still Christian enough, anyway, to hold pastoral cures and theological chairs.

Separating St. Paul
I suspect such people separate Jesus from St. Paul because they do not want to obey the rule of life Paul gives us, and they do not want to believe that Jesus would agree with him. It is not an easy rule in any age, and in ours it can be a costly one, socially and professionally. You will make those at a dinner party in most suburbs flinch by saying of homosexuality what St. Paul says of it in Romans 1, and if you are a cleric you will risk your future by treating the matter as urgently as the apostle suggests. You will upset many conservative Christians by speaking in the Pauline mode, because such speech is too pointed, too stark, too direct, too divisive.

Faced with such demands as St. Paul makes, people naturally turn away from their source, as one instinctively avoids the eyes of anyone who has just asked for volunteers. The shrewder ones will start talking ever more loudly about the Lord so that others will not notice they have turned their backs on his servant St. Paul.

That is the obvious reason, but my colleague Steven Hutchens has noted another. “There is,” he adds, “the absolute necessity of using truth to promulgate the lie. We should not be surprised when we see them appear together.” In these cases, a perversion of Christianity is best conveyed while talking fervently of Jesus.

Orthodox Christians look to Jesus and so look to St. Paul, and listen to St. Paul because he reliably points us to Jesus. We assume that God gave us the epistles as well as the gospels, because the Epistles tell us something the Gospels do not, or make clear something we would not always see rightly in the gospels. Of course, a man stranded on an island with only the four gospels, or even just one gospel, would know what Jesus has done for him and would have a very good idea of what Jesus expects of him. But he would not know everything Jesus expected of him, and not everything he knew would he know confidently and accurately.

In the gospels we meet Jesus himself. They tell Jesus’ story, and storytellers cannot include everything their subject did or said. In the epistles we hear people who knew Jesus much better than we do tell us what he said, or would have said, about this, that, and the other problem we must solve. In them we have the narrative turned into a theology.

To take the most contentious issue of the moment, Jesus did not say (or is not recorded as saying) anything about homosexuality, the practice being so thoroughly unthinkable to the Jews of the day as not to need mentioning. Left on our own, with only the four gospels to tell us what Jesus wants, we could easily assume that a man may lie with a man as with a woman (in Leviticus’ practical definition) and in doing so express the love that Jesus did talk about and reject the legalism he condemned.

We would be wrong, but ours would be a plausible error, given the information we have in the gospels alone. St. Paul’s exposition clarifies the question for us beyond mistake or dispute. (I know some do dispute it, but they can only do so by distorting Paul’s message in the way they accuse Paul of distorting Jesus’.)

A Rule for Discernment
Let me suggest a rule for discernment: A man who habitually speaks of Jesus Christ without also speaking of St. Paul and the other New Testament writers is not speaking as a Christian, no matter how orthodox his view of the Lord. He may love the Lord he finds in the gospels, but he does not also love St. Paul and the rest, and he who does not love St. Paul and the rest does not love with enough clarity the Lord who became man in first-century Palestine.

He may well be an accredited shepherd with many years’ experience, but he is not following the Shepherd’s Manual. He is rewriting it in the light, he thinks, of his greater knowledge and experience. It was written for primitive sheep, not the highly evolved sheep of today, and reflects the ancient shepherd’s simplistic understanding of wolves, not the insight of the modern shepherd. The modern shepherd understands that the wolves are seeking the one truth in their own way and must be affirmed in their personal journey, and that the shepherd’s traditional requirement to protect the sheep and the wolves’ desire to eat them must be held in creative tension till both come to see that the answer is found in a synthesis of their views, because each needs the other to be whole.

This shepherd is worse than a hireling, who runs away when danger threatens the flock and leaves the sheep who have been entrusted to him to the wolves. Hirelings are adequate shepherds as long as they do not have to risk their life. They hate wolves, even if they will not fight them. The shepherd who rejects the epistles is in league with the wolves. He has accepted their rules for the care of sheep. In exchange for their friendship, he asks only that he be allowed to defend the sheep at selected times during the day, which permission the wolves are usually happy to grant, as long as their access to dinner is not unduly restricted.

The Scripture is a whole. It is all of a piece. It is a canon. Through St. Paul and St. John and St. Peter and the rest we hear our Lord speaking. The wise Christian, therefore, will not follow the shepherd who does not himself follow St. Paul and St. John and St. Peter and the rest. He will shun the man who talks in very traditional terms about the Lord but ignores or rejects the epistles.

He who loves the General will obey his captains, even when they command what he does not like or want, and even when the wolves threaten. The man who disobeys the captains, though he has a picture of the general tattooed on his chest, is no friend of the general’s, but a traitor.

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Absent Allies

Absent Allies

David Mills on Conservative Avoidance

In my years in the Episcopal resistance, I often ran into conservative men and women who would explain to me that though they rejected some liberal innovation, “It is not a hill I am going to die on.” More than once someone told me that he would not fight an innovation right after telling me that he thought it completely unbiblical. Friends in other churches have told me that they have heard the same declaration from those who ought to have been their allies.

Often such people will concede that the innovation is heretical, or may well be heretical, but then claim that the battle has been lost and the innovators have won, or that the issue is not a “Gospel imperative,” or that opposing the innovation is either “not a hill I am going to die on” or “not a trench I want to die in,” or that the people on the other side are good and godly people whose good work cannot be denied, or that we cannot make a definitive judgment when sincere believers disagree.

To be fair, sometimes the excuse may have been a good reason badly expressed. To say that “it’s not a trench I want to die in” may mean that you are not called to activism — to speak at meetings and organize petitions and the like — though you will resist the error firmly in your own place and time. In an imperfect church and world, Christians must pick their fights. However, most of the people I am writing about meant by such high-minded phrases that they would accept the innovation and act as if it did not matter, despite thinking it either wrong or likely to be wrong.

These are obviously very bad reasons for avoiding what they admit may well be the teaching of Scripture and for living peacefully with innovations they admit are or may well be heretical. Bad as they were, I don’t remember anyone ever looking guilty as he gave one of them, though I thought that they surely knew how flimsy and self-serving their arguments seemed to the rest of us. They often gave them with as much intensity and conviction as if they were saying, “I will not sell my children into slavery.” It still strikes me as odd, this complete lack of self-consciousness or embarrassment.

The main issue during my time as an activist was the ordination of women. Many conservative Episcopalians came genuinely to believe in it, but many — the people of whom I am speaking — did not. They would tell people like me, usually under the cloak of night, that they really didn’t agree with it, or had problems with it that would not go away, or were sure that it would eventually be proved wrong. Several priests told me that they did not believe that women should be ordained, yet had women priests serving as assistants in their parishes.

Most obviously felt that their doubts made us comrades, though their doubts were secret and ineffective when mine were public. They sometimes made a cozy disparaging remark about some conservative supporter of women’s ordination, as if he were in a different camp than they. I found this the oddest part of the business.

I would have thought that such people would be moved by seeing that each reason could apply equally well to innovations they opposed, including the approval of homosexuality and “inclusive” or goddess liturgies, were these innovations ever officially approved. Having granted one innovative reading of Scripture, they could not logically rule out another. They could not answer the insistence of the innovators that a similar “paradigm shift” will someday reveal to them the godliness of homosexual marriages or prayer to God the Mother. They could not with any confidence declare that they would never come to believe in these things, against the Christian tradition they inherited, as they have come to believe in the headship of women, against the Christian tradition they inherited.

As some predicted (including me), some of these conservatives are already invoking these excuses to justify their inaction as the homosexualists press in their churches for the approval of sodomy and others move for the approval of liturgies that remove the Father and the Son. One could predict their current capitulation because these excuses are the natural responses of the conservative faced with paying the cost of conserving the faith given him to conserve. They are the sorts of things you say when you are trying to have your cake and eat it too.

Bad Excuses
It may therefore be worth briefly examining each excuse. None of them work. None of them come close to working.

First, a biblical truth can never be lost, because it is God’s truth, and he does not lose them. To act as if a Christian teaching should not be held and (when appropriate) fought for because some official body has overruled it gives that body authority over Scripture. At this point, you have not simply made a tactical judgment, you have turned against God’s own instructions.

And further, you have set a dangerous and unstable precedent. Even if the biblical truth at issue seems to you a minor one, you have parked on a steep slope, put the car in neutral, and let off the emergency brake. Take your foot off the brake for a second and down you go. Trade places with someone who has not your training or experience or persistence, and you will soon see him careening out of control down the hill.

Second, the excuse that depends upon an idea of “imperatives” divides the Christian teaching in a way it cannot be divided. Our compromising friends seem to mean by “Gospel imperative” any truth obviously bearing on our salvation, thus leaving the rest up for discussion. They will fight over Christology (they claim), but not over ecclesiology, morality, or anything else they call un-imperative.

But to the biblical writers, and to the formative theologians of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism alike, every revealed truth is a part of the web or structure of the Christian revelation. Christianity builds us a home, and homes require not only foundations but also buildings on top of them. Some truths may be more foundational than others, as being the truths upon which the others logically and metaphysically are built. This does not make these truths moreimperativethan the others, so that you must accept them but may equivocate on or deny the others. A foundation without a building on top of it is not yet a house, much less a home.

You cannot obey the first two Commandments as “Mosaic imperatives” and ignore the others. The last eight follow logically from the first two and show us how to live them. In fact, the first two would not be much use to us if we did not have the others to tell us what they mean. In the same way, if the Bible teaches male headship, it does so because that is the only way we are to — and presumably the only way we can — live out the “Gospel imperatives” in a historical community of men and women.

The third excuse, that an innovation is “not a trench I want to die in,” fails for the same reason. Any trench Scripture digs for us is one to die in, even if the trench is now in enemy territory. God has ordered us into the trenches, and it is our job to jump in without complaining about his choices. We must remember that we do not know his strategy. Not to die in your trench is desertion, and in the army you may get shot for it. We have no idea what future victory may be won because we stayed in the trenches and died when prudence said to retreat, or whether God will send in new soldiers and overwhelm the enemy just when we are about to die.

The Other Excuses
The fourth excuse was the godliness of the people on the other side. The people I am talking about applied it to the ordination of women, which they felt seemed to contradict St. Paul’s teaching but offered in contrast the admirable ministries of ordained women they knew.

The existence of godly ordained women is vexing, but for pastoral and not theological reasons. One does not want to deny their gifts or hurt their feelings. One can easily see where they went wrong, and sympathize with their reasons. But I would feel the same way about some homosexual couples I’ve known, whose “marriages” were, as far as one could tell, far healthier than many normal marriages.

However, if what they are doing is at best only a simulation of the reality God intends, it is in some way unfair and harmful to them, and to those now under them, to treat it as that reality. Something will go wrong sometime, if it is not God’s will. No matter how godly they are and (apparently) effective their ministry, thefactthat they are women acting in a male role will necessarily have some effects, probably serious but perhaps very difficult to discern.

Even secular studies now find that a single mother simply can’t function as a father, nor a single father as a mother. Children suffer when the roles are confused, no matter how good and loving and energetic the single parent may be. The same thing, surely, happens when women are ordained to headship, to lead a body that ought to have a man as its head.

The final excuse, that when believers disagree, Christians cannot speak definitively, gets us exactly nowhere, as there is no issue on which sincere Christians do not sincerely disagree. This argument would have stopped St. Paul, St. Athanasius, St. Francis, William Wilberforce, and every other reformer in church history from doing anything at all useful. Paul would not have opposed James’s conditions for including gentiles in the Church had he refused to be dogmatic when sincere believers (including senior apostles) disagreed.

Logically, the excuse breaks down, because by “believers” our friends can only mean “people who agree with me when I expect them to agree with me,” which is not an objective criterion for discerning truth from error. They are arguing in a circle: Sincere believers disagree. Who are the sincere believers? The people who disagree.

None Very Good
None of the excuses otherwise orthodox Christians give for avoiding the painful position of opposing popular innovations excuse them. They give themselves away by admitting, at least in private, that they know better. They are, not to put too fine a point on it, deserters from God’s army, who want to choose the battles of his they will fight for him.

It would be infinitely better for them if they reconciled themselves to the inevitable: If you are a Christian, you will generally be an eccentric. You will be someone who upsets the consensus by pointing out the places at which it differs from the faith. You will be out of step, and some people will not like you. Some of the people who do not like you may well have power over you. You will suffer for offending them.

Six or seven decades ago you would have had to point out that the new approval of contraception was in truth promoting unchastity. (This must still be said, of course.) Three or four decades ago you would have had to point out that many churches’ racial policies were racist, and that the churches’ implicit nationalism was idolatrous. Today you will have to point out that the ordination of women and (in some churches) the approval of sodomy is a rebellion against the sexual order God created.

I suspect that the obvious inadequacy of our friends’ excuses, and the contradiction between their adamant defense of the Christian teaching on issues not yet officially lost (especially homosexuality) and their avoidance of that teaching on issues now lost in their churches, show that they are acting and believing out of character. They know better, but they are, as a friend puts it, “happily inconsistent.”

Avoiding conflict can easily become a habit, and one that will lead you farther and farther down. Once you have learned to be happily inconsistent on one issue, you can easily be happily inconsistent on others you now feel strongly about, should strong temptation to compromise ever come your way. You will find yourself agreeing to things that you would have fled from in horror just a few years ago — if you can recognize your corruption at all. As Alexander Pope wrote of vice:

Vice is a monster of so frightful a mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

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To See Truly Through a Glass Darkly

To See Truly Through a Glass Darkly

C. S. Lewis, George Orwell, & the Corruption of Language

by David Mills

Even well-educated people are often startlingly insensitive to language. One reads, even in the better magazines, prose that clanks and clangs, in which words have meanings only in the sense that “Bob lives in Manhattan” is an address, in which all sorts of assumptions the writers may not knowingly hold are conveyed in the words they use without thinking. The words plant themselves in our common vocabulary and grow there quietly till no one realizes what they actually mean, nor how they change minds and actions by making some thoughts more thinkable and others less.

Such a word is “values.” Cultural conservatives defend “traditional values” and “family values,” thinking they are speaking the language of the past, but in that word “values” lies a revolution in our understanding of goodness, for our ancestors would not have spoken of values but of virtues. The word “values,” the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb noted, includes

the assumptions that all moral ideas are subjective and relative, that they are mere customs and conventions, that they have a purely instrumental, utilitarian purpose, and that they are peculiar to specific individuals and societies. . . . One cannot say of virtues, as one can of values, that anyone’s virtues are as good as anyone else’s, or that everyone has a right to his own virtues.1

A world concerned with values is a very different world from one concerned with virtues. It will be, at the least, a less virtuous world because it will think far less about virtue.

C. S. Lewis saw a similar effect in the change from “ruler” to “leader” as the popular name for those in authority or power. We ask of rulers “justice, incorruption, diligence, perhaps clemency,” but of leaders “dash, initiative, and (I suppose) what people call ‘magnetism’ or ‘personality’.”2 We see this today in the change in the common vocabulary from “piety,” which requires submission to God, to “spirituality,” which does not, and from “a book” that has a meaning, to “a text” in which the reader may find almost anything he wants, and from “conversion,” which assumes the truth is known, to “conversation,” which assumes that it is yet to be found.

Our language directs how we understand the world around us and how we react to it and act upon it. Words have consequences, and this is why the corruption of language is such a danger to the common good. “When . . . you have killed a word you have also, as far as in you lay, blotted from the human mind the thing that word originally stood for,” Lewis wrote in 1944. “Men do not long continue to think what they have forgotten how to say.”3

Orwell and Lewis
George Orwell (1903–1950) and C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) were masters of modern English prose, exquisitely sensitive to the misuse of language. Both wrote novels on this subject, Orwell Animal Farm (1945) and especially 1984 (1949) and Lewis That Hideous Strength (1945), and reflected on the subject repeatedly in their essays.

Though they do not seem to have met, and would probably not have liked each other if they had, they had read each other’s works. Writing in 1944, Orwell criticized Beyond Personality(the last of Lewis’s talks on the BBC, later incorporated into Mere Christianity) as an example of “the silly-clever religious book,” which he meant as a literary and moral insult.4 Writing in 1955, Lewis praised Orwell’s Animal Farm as a masterpiece while judiciously criticizing 1984.5 Lewis was the more generous critic, not just because he was a more generous and liberal man, but because he could accept Orwell’s observations on society, while Orwell could not accept Lewis’s faith, which deeply challenged his materialism and irreligion.6

Orwell and Lewis both fought the corruption of language, the use of words to confuse and blind others, to make some actions possible either by making the necessary thoughts thinkable or by making clear thought impossible. Yet Lewis also knew that the problem — the danger — was not only or even mainly one of corrupted language, but of corrupted souls.

Politics and the English Language
Orwell’s most famous short work on the corruption of language is his essay “Politics and the English Language,” published in 1946 and now a standard in anthologies on writing.7 “The decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes,” he began, but each makes the other worse. “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.” This applies to the English language. Our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

In such English, the images are always stale and the language always imprecise. “This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.” (He would have included, had he cared about the subject, religious writing as well.)

As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a pre-fabricated henhouse.

The words you need are to hand, and these “ready-made phrases . . . will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.” What he called “orthodoxy,” by which he meant unthinkingly following the party line, whatever party you belonged to, “demands a vague and inflated language and particularly the use of stale and unrevealing metaphors.” Orthodoxy requires such a style because it does not want people to see clearly, because if they saw clearly, they might dissent.

They might dissent because “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” Orwell cited as examples the ways Western intellectuals excused the Soviet atrocities. “Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.”

By ridding oneself of slovenly language, “one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration; so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” His answer to the temptations of “orthodoxy” was simply to write better, in particular, to free one’s language of the jargon and images and common phrases that carry the meaning the orthodox want you to believe. “If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”

He offered several very good rules for simplifying your English: “1) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print; 2) Never use a long word when a short one will do; 3) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out; 4) Never use a passive where you can use the active; 5) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

“Politics and the English Language” is a great and, given the status of the people he was attacking, courageous essay. Orwell was right as far as he went, but he did not go far enough, because he was not a Christian. He recognized good and evil but could not relate them to any transcendent order, and so could offer only a set of techniques to oppose people who held other views of good and evil. He objected to their calling the murder of political opponents “the elimination of unreliable elements,” but had noreasonto condemn those who were eliminating people they sincerely believed to be unreliable elements and thus could not condemn them for using those words to describe what they were doing.

Lewis on Language
Lewis had argued many of the same points before Orwell’s essay appeared, most famously inThe Abolition of Man(1943) andThat Hideous Strength(1945).8 The crucial difference in their arguments is that Orwell was a materialist and Lewis a Christian. As a Christian, Lewis saw the universe in a greater and a clearer light, and therefore saw more clearly the use of language in a fallen world. (This is an offensive claim, perhaps, but as Lewis wrote, “Christianity claims to give an account offacts—to tell you what the real universe is like,” and if Christianity is true, “it is quite impossible that those who know this truth and those who don’t should be equally well equipped for leading a good life.”9

It was against the degradation of language into an instrument of control that he fought. “Language is an instrument for communication,” he wrote in a later work,Studies in Words. “The language which can with the greatest ease make the finest and most numerous distinctions of meaning is the best. It is better to have like and love than to have aimer for both.”10 He fought against language in which proper distinctions were not made and false distinctions employed. He wished us to “become aware of what we are doing when we speak, of the ancient, fragile, and (well used) immensely potent instruments that words are.” He meant by “well used,” skillfully used—because words are immensely potent instruments for evil as well as for good.

In The Abolition of Man, he argued that the danger to our language comes not first from political and economic causes but from a philosophical error, the rejection of the Tao, the fundamental and necessary, though unprovable, beliefs about right and wrong accepted by all cultures in all times. Among English artists, intellectuals, and political leaders as much as among as the Nazis they were fighting (Lewis was writing in 1943), “Traditional values are to be ‘de-bunked’ and mankind to be cut into some fresh shape. . . . The belief that we can invent ‘ideologies’ at pleasure, and the consequent treatment of mankind as mere specimens, preparations, begins to affect our very language. Once we killed bad men; now we liquidate unsocial elements. Virtue has become integration and diligence dynamism.”11

The process of corruption is hidden “by the use of the abstraction ‘man’,” he continued. The Tao teaches us what it is to be human, but reject the Tao and individual men are reduced to examples of “a mere abstract universal” that can be given any meaning you like.12 One can do to Man what one cannot do to the individual man or woman or child. Human nature becomes whatever those in power say it is.

Three years later, Lewis noted that the act of rationalizing evil by describing it as doing good showed itself first in language. “When to ‘kill’ becomes to ‘liquidate’ the process has begun. The pseudo-scientific word disinfects the thing of blood and tears, or pity and shame, and mercy itself can be regarded as a sort of untidiness.”13

That Hideous Strength
It is in That Hideous Strength, the third novel in his space trilogy, that Lewis gave the matter his most thorough treatment.14 (He gives many examples in other books, of course, especially The Great Divorce,The Screwtape Letters, and The Narnia Chronicles.15 We find, first, the sort of corruption Orwell examined, where stealing people’s homes is hidden and defended by calling it the rectification of frontiers. The N.I.C.E. (a conspiracy to take over England disguised as a scientific, humanitarian institute, located in a place called Belbury) wants the legal authority to experiment on criminals but knows the public would oppose the plan if they knew. They must change the public’s mind by changing its vocabulary. One of their leaders, Feverstone, explains this to Mark Studdock, a young sociologist they want to hire.

[I]t does make a difference how things are put. For instance, if it were even whispered that the N.I.C.E. wanted powers to experiment on criminals, you’d have all the old women of both sexes up in arms and yapping about humanity. Call it re-education of the mal-adjusted, and you have them all slobbering with delight that the brutal era of retributive punishment has at last come to an end. . . . You mustn’t experiment on children; but offer the dear little kiddies free education in an experimental school attached to the N.I.C.E. and it’s all correct!16

Feverstone tells Mark that they want him to write such things. Mark’s response is only to worry, his professional vanity being touched, whether this would be his main job. Here, in Mark’s almost unconscious choices, driven by his desire to get on the inside, Lewis introduced one theme of the novel: that to lie is to reject God and choose the darkness, which leads, more quickly than we realize, to blindness and thus damnation.

In choosing to use words to mean what they do not mean, in order to trick people into approving what they would not approve if they understood rightly, Mark takes a step, a small but decisive step, toward hell. (Some readers have thought Mark a weakness in the novel because he is such a fool that it is hard to care enough about him to keep reading. We may think that—until we realize that most of us are like Mark. We make the same choice to lie or speak truly every day and usually for the same reasons. At that point our interest rises.)

In part, the Belburian method is to force people to think certain thoughts by giving them the words with which to think them or by destroying the words with which they might think other thoughts, as Orwell described in the appendix on “Newspeak” in 1984. But the Belburian method is subtler and Lewis’s insight deeper than Orwell’s. The method Feverstone describes finds within the people he wants to manipulate a prejudice or desire and makes acting upon it respectable by giving it a respectable name. It plays carefully upon the sins of the people, in ways they will not see, by articulating for them what they already believed, or half-believed, or wanted to believe. The good propagandist is a disciple of Screwtape’s.

Then there is the corrupting language of jargon, which is not heard much at Belbury, but is heard in people like Mark who are, without knowing it, training for Belbury. As a sociologist, Mark is supposed to be concerned with the realities of human life, but he avoided “such words as ‘man’ or ‘woman.’ He preferred to write about ‘vocational groups,’ ‘elements,’ ‘classes’ and ‘populations’: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.” It is this mental habit of abstraction, I suspect, that made him so easily adopt the language of Belbury.17

Jargon is often a technical necessity (“classes” is a useful term for understanding how people act in groups), but one can move very easily from using jargon as a sort of shorthand to using it to avoid those realities. “Compare ‘Our Father which art in Heaven’ with ‘The supreme being transcends space and time’,” Lewis wrote his brother just after his conversion.

The first goes to pieces if you begin to apply the literal meaning to it. . . . The second falls into no such traps. On the other hand the first really means something, really represents a concrete experience in the minds of those who use it; the second is mere dexterous playing with the counters, and once a man has learnt the rule he can go on that way for two volumes without really using the words to refer to any concrete fact at all.18

And then there is the corrupting language of metaphor, of rejecting realities you dislike by treating them as metaphors for ideas of which you approve. The Anglican priest Straik, an atheist and self-proclaimed prophet (not, apparently, defrocked), insists on telling Mark that the kingdom of God is to be achieved on this earth, given not by God but by science, that they, the Belburians, are the saints who will inherit the earth, that Belbury and its programs are the Resurrection.19 In making realities metaphorical, one steals the attachment and authority of the realities for one’s own ends.

An example is the attempt to modernize the biblical language in a way that erases the content, either because the modernizer is insensitive to the way images convey truths that cannot be conveyed in propositions, or because he does not like the meaning and wishes to replace it while claiming its authority, or because he simply does not know the realities and thinks his propositions just as good. In Letters from Malcolm Lewis noted that the revision of biblical language called de-mythologizing “can easily be ‘re-mythologizing’ it — and substituting a poorer mythology for a richer.” When propositions are substituted for biblical images, the new meanings are “more subtly hidden and of a far more disastrous type.”20

Making Things Unclear
Then there is the corrupting language of obscurity. It is not quite accurate to say, as some readers have said, that the speech of John Wither, deputy director of the N.I.C.E., makes no sense. When he first meets Mark, he conveys information, but he does not convey the information Mark needs to have — he tells Mark that he may live anywhere, but not whether he has a job.21 Wither does not speak nonsense but refuses to speak the truth needed.

He intends to manipulate, but his method is different from the one Feverstone explained to Mark. He does not try to adjust the people’s vocabulary and therefore their understanding, but tries to cloud their vision and therefore eliminate understanding, leaving his victims to act blindly on instinct and appetite, as Mark does (and Wither knows he will), obeying his almost overwhelming desire to be in the inner ring. The director of the N.I.C.E.’s police explains this to Mark: “Making things clear is the one thing the D.D. can’t stand. . . . That’s not how he runs the place. And mind you, he knows what he’s about. It works, Sonny. You’ve no idea yet how well it works.” Wither, after all, can speak plainly to his—not colleagues, for no one at Belbury is a colleague or a comrade—co-conspirators.22

At the end of the story, we find that Wither has actually chosen meaninglessness. Belbury has fallen into chaos and death (though to say one is to say the other), but he does not care, because “He had willed with his whole heart that there should be no reality and no truth, and now even the imminence of his own ruin could not wake him.”23 He did not want meaning, but he had wanted power; denied power, he had nothing and was satisfied.

A Vision of God
Thus Lewis as much as Orwell exposed the corruption of language, but he saw something more. He knew that to write well we must see rightly, and that to see rightly we must be holy. As St. John says, “Now we are the sons of God, and . . . when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2), and on the other hand, the sinner “is in darkness, and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:11).24

Orwell saw something of this. “The more I see the more I doubt whether people ever really make aesthetic judgments at all,” he wrote four years after writing “Politics and the English Language.” “Everything is judged on political grounds which are then given an aesthetic disguise.”25 But for him the causes of corrupted language were economic and political, and the solution was to simplify one’s English. He was a modern man, and thus he could only answer a moral and spiritual problem with a technique.26 Lewis saw that the real cause was the corruption of the human soul and therefore that the only lasting answer was redemption and sanctification.

The question is how the vision of the good and of God is gained or lost. Almost everything Lewis wrote addresses this question in some way, but we will look at examples only from The Narnia Chronicles and That Hideous Strength. In his books, Lewis showed people making choices, but he never explained why they made the choices they did. In The Narnia Chronicles, we see people choosing to see or not to see Aslan by choosing to do good or evil. In That Hideous Strength, we see Mark choosing to lie.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, we see that the state of the heart determines whether we see God and accept him when we do. Peter, Susan, and Lucy respond to the name of Aslan, before they have any idea who Aslan is, with hope. Edmund, who nurtures anger and plots treason, responds with revulsion and fear. Like Mark Studdock, he is brought to see the good only when his plans fail and he comes close to losing his life. Yet he chooses for Aslan, as Rabadash in The Horse and His Boy, given the same choice, refuses him.

Lewis also gave a hint in this story about the nature of images and archetypes. To be saved, the children have to choose to follow a robin, whom they follow because robins are always good in the stories they know. Only Edmund suspects the robin, having through his treachery and greed lost both his discernment and his ability to trust another, because he begins to believe that everyone is as treacherous as he is. His world is turning in upon itself, and he is becoming the only canon or criterion he knows.

In Prince Caspian, Lewis showed that we come to see God by accepting the reports of those we know are good and have seen him already. Peter, Susan, and Edmund come to see Aslan only by following Lucy, who sees him when (because they refused her testimony before) they do not. Susan resists most strongly, appealing to her age and the majority against Lucy, and then when the others agree to follow her, threatens to stay behind. She follows, at last, only because she has to or be left by herself in a strange forest. Because she has rejected Lucy’s witness but still followed her, if only because she is afraid not to, she sees Aslan but sees him last of all the children. As George Macdonald tells Lewis in The Great Divorce, “If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear.”27

In Caspian himself we see that the vision comes to those who hope for it, who recognize that this world is not all there is, even if they do not know what else there is. And we also see that the vision grows as we grow in the vision. “Every year you grow, you will find me bigger,” Aslan tells Lucy.

The other five Chronicles give other insights into the vision of God. In each of them, men and women choose to see or not to see Aslan, as they choose good or evil. Everything one does blinds or enlightens.

A Study of the Corruptible
The Last Battle may also be read as a study of those who would let their language be corrupted.28 Most of the animals who accept the new Aslan, and then Tashlan, are ignorant and frightened. They know of Aslan only from stories. The false Aslan is shown to them in the dark, with such pomp as the ape Shift can manage, accompanied by Calormene soldiers. A few animals protest, but most accept him. He is doing evil — killing the Wood Nymphs and selling them into slavery to Calormen — but convinced that he is Aslan, they assume that he is angry with them and that their suffering is their own fault. For most, their understanding has been corrupted but not their hearts, but that is enough to set them to serve the ape and the Calormenes and to blaspheme against Aslan.

Others are cowardly or do not love the good enough to resist evil. Puzzle acts out Shift’s lies (itself a form of lying) because he is a coward. He later pleads that he is “not clever” and that he was only following orders, but he acted as he did because he did not have the courage to resist Shift’s urging to do what he knew was wrong. Only when he sees the Calormene god Tash flying by — actually sees evil — does he truly repent. We sometimes forget that evil may be done passively, as it was done by Puzzle, by not choosing the good when the good must be chosen, or by not resisting evil when evil must be resisted.29

And some do not see because they have sinned. Even the two heroes, King Tirian and Jewel the unicorn, do not recognize the fake Aslan because they have sinned: first by acting in anger and then by murdering two unarmed Calormene soldiers. They had been given enough information to know better: they should have known from the Centaur’s report of the stars and the news brought by the Dryad, who dies in front of them because someone had cut down her tree, that Aslan has not returned to Narnia.

The sins affect their vision according to their gravity. When acting in anger, Tirian and Jewel forget the evidence they have and cannot decide if the Aslan they hear about is the true Aslan. The mystery that Aslan is not a tame lion, a mystery in the sense of a truth too deep to be grasped, becomes a mystery in the sense of something unknown. It confuses them, seeming to mean that they can know nothing about him, even if he is doing what they know is wrong. (Significantly, perhaps, no one remembers the words which in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe followed “He’s not a tame lion”: “But he’s good.”) Then they fall into deeper sin — murder — and suddenly they are no longer in doubt: they believe the rumored Aslan to be the real Aslan and give themselves up to his justice. Anger dimmed their sight, but murder blinded them.

But they are also repentant and do penance, and so their blindness lasts only a little while. When the ape declares that Aslan is the same as Tash, Tirian rejects the lie because he knows—he remembers—that Aslan is good and Tash evil. Even so, later that night, when Puzzle/Aslan is exhibited to the animals, Tirian, tied to a tree some ways away, still wonders if he might really be Aslan. After all, “He had never seen the Great Lion. . . . He had not expected Aslan to look like that stiff thing which stood and said nothing. How could one be sure? For a moment horrible thoughts went through his mind: then he remembered the nonsense about Tash and Aslan being the same and knew that the whole thing must be a cheat.”

The loss of vision in That Hideous Strength is shown in Mark Studdock’s steady movement to damnation through his choosing to lie: by fantasies of what he will do or would have done (which is a form of lying, though we tend to forget this), by pretending to like people he did not like, by saying what he thinks he’s expected to say and not saying what he thinks will offend, and (in some ways most corrupting) by lying or deciding to lie to his wife.30 All small acts, taken one by one, but building to an act whose significance he had made himself unable to see.

At last he is invited in: to write newspaper stories about a riot that N.I.C.E. will start the next day, to convince the government to grant them emergency powers.

This was the first thing Mark had been asked to do which he himself, before he did it, clearly knew to be criminal. But the moment of his consent almost escaped his notice; certainly, there was no struggle, no sense of turning a corner . . . it all slipped past in a chatter of laughter, of that intimate laughter between fellow professionals, which of all earthly powers is strongest to make men do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad men.31

Having lost his vision of the good, he is now helping others lose theirs.

The Furnace of Essential Speech
Of language used rightly I will say little here. The best introduction to the language of heaven, as far as we can speak it on earth, is the stories themselves, because one best learns a language not by reading textbooks and grammars but from the company of those who speak it as natives.

At St. Anne’s, the small community opposed to Belbury, language is used to clarify and thereby to heal.32 There the right word is the word that heals by bringing truth; at Belbury, the right word is the word that tricks (“re-education” for “experiment”). The healing word may be a hard word (which breaks the bone to set it again) but a hard word only because the truth is hard to bear. We rarely hear such hard words at Belbury, where conversation is either insider talk or abuse, and usually the sort of insider talk that brings the listeners in by defaming those without.

The end and goal is something very hard to describe, and Lewis does so in mystical terms when Mercury descends upon St. Anne’s. The lesser mortals become witty, eloquent, play deeply with metaphor and analogy. Upstairs, Ransom and Merlin, wiser and greater than the others, were living, though even they only for a short time, “in the very heart of language, in the white-hot furnace of essential speech. All fact was broken, splashed into cataracts, caught, turned inside out, kneaded, slain, and reborn as meaning.”33

Less mystically, the people who see truly find their language being deepened. I will give just two examples. First, in the justly famous description of Aslan: he is not safe or tame, but he is good. “Wild” and “good” have much deeper meanings than we thought. In explaining this to the children, the Beavers, no intellectuals, articulate a paradoxical truth and mystery that theologians have trouble grasping. Second, inThe Voyage of the Dawn Treader,Lucy wants him to come back soon, and Aslan simply tells her that he “calls all times soon.” Time, in other words, is not just the movement through history of minute after minute, but part of eternity, encompassed within God.

Lewis gives another example in the elaborate and archaic language the Pevensie children adopt while in Narnia. (This is clearest in the last chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but also in Peter’s composing his letter to Miraz in Prince Caspian.) They speak so, I assume, not just because they have in Narnia grown to love beautiful language but because it is the language of courtesy — because, in other words, their respect for each other has grown. How else would one speak to “possible gods and goddesses” and “everlasting splendours,” as Lewis described man at the end of his sermon “The Weight of Glory”?

Training Our Vision
These are all examples of the language of heaven. Here let me note only that the ability to speak such language is a gift, but it is a gift to be found — or better yet, received — after and through the cleansing of your language from corruption. From Lewis’s writing we may discern ways to train our vision, to learn to choose to see, so that our speech may grow purer. This process of purification is an act for the establishment of man, against his abolition.

The first step in training our vision is obedience: obedience not only to the Christian revelation but also to the Tao. Lewis explained to his friend Malcolm that one could not explain the mystery of Communion, but that we were commanded to “Take, eat: not Take, understand,”34 and this principle is a central one to the Christian life.

Moreover, we must have an objective standard—theTaoand the revelation—to have grounds for objecting to propaganda. If there is no right and wrong, those who want to use words as weapons to gain power over others may do so as they please. To see, we must believe there is something there to see.

Second, we must accept the revelation and the terms in which that revelation has been given to us, particularly those images we tend to try to put into propositions.35 The being who is as strong or as fierce as a lion is not so interesting or glorious —or strong or fierce — as the real lion Aslan, nor as close to us.

Third, we ought to spend as much time as we can in the company of those who see. Not only holy people, but holy books, or rather books in which holiness is conveyed.

Fourth, we ought to enjoy such pleasures as God gives us. Mark is saved at the end ofThat Hideous Strengthby the memory of Jane, and not least, of Jane’s body. And, less erotically, certainly, by taking enjoyment in a children’s book he had enjoyed as a child but stopped reading because he thought it was childish.36

All of these together nurture in us “just sentiments,” feelings and instincts and responses and emotions all reflecting reality. Until quite recently, Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man, “all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt.”37 What an object merited was generally established in the Tao and recognized by all. Belbury, not surprisingly, calls these just sentiments “obscurantism” as opposed to the unsentimental “order” and “objectivity” it offers.38

We must have just sentiments to see and therefore to speak truly. In losing belief in the Tao we have laid ourselves open to accepting without demur any set of reactions, any sentiments, no matter how incongruous with reality. “The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments . . . a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.”39 As G. K. Chesterton said, when a man ceases to believe in God, he does not believe in nothing, he believes in anything.

The Call to Holiness
By seeing more clearly, one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards regeneration of any kind. And thus the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. But the writer’s struggle begins in the human heart, Lewis knew, in the choice for or against God. “[W]ith all your innumerable choices,” Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity,

all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.40

Language is best purified not by the writing techniques Orwell offered, as useful as they are, but by holiness. The Eastern Orthodox say that a theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian. It may be said that the writer is one who says his prayers, and one who says his prayers is (within the limits of his gifts and training) a writer, for poor grammar and clumsy rhythm may yet convey the truth more precisely and deeply than grace and style and wit. “The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that,” Lewis wrote.41 The holy man speaks the truth, because he knows exactly what he wants to say, because he sees it in front of him.

1. The De-moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (Knopf, 1995) pp. 11–12.
2. “De Descriptione Temporum,” They Asked for a Paper (Bles, 1962) p. 18. He traced a similar change from believing love the chief virtue to believing that unselfishness is. “The Weight of Glory,” The Weight of Glory (Eerdmans, 1965) p. 1. He also saw that a rejection of objective truth led people to demand of their rulers qualities that could not be defined or measured but were promoted in exciting and compelling words. “The Poison of Subjectivism,” Christian Reflections, edited by Walter Hooper (Eerdmans, 1967) p. 81.
3. “The Death of Words,” On Stories, edited by Walter Hooper (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Harvest Books, 1982), p. 107.
4.The Collected Essays,Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968) vol. 3, p. 263. The passage Orwell ridicules is the third paragraph of chapter 7 of Book IV of Mere Christianity. He left out the first two sentences, which put it in context.
5. “George Orwell,” On Stories, pp. 101–104.
6. Writing during the last year of his life, Orwell called a seventeenth-century Italian crucifix with a stiletto inside “a perfect symbol of the Christian religion” and wrote that Christianity is “untenable” and “indefensible.”The Collected Essays,etc., vol. 4, pp. 511, 512.
7. Ibid., pp. 127–140.
8. Lewis’s remarks on the craft of writing can be found in Letters of C. S. Lewis, edited by W. H. Lewis (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Harvest Books, 1975) pp. 270–271, 291–292; “Christian Apologetics,” “Before We Can Communicate,” and “Cross-Examination,” God in the Dock, edited by Walter Hooper (Eerdmans, 1970) pp. 96–99, 254–257, 263. See also his friend Nevill Coghill’s remarks on his style in “The Approach to English,” Light on C. S. Lewis, edited by Jocelyn Gibb (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Harvest Books, 1976) p. 59ff.
9. “Man or Rabbit?” God in the Dock, pp. 108–109.
10. Studies in Words (Cambridge University Press/Canto Books, 1990) p. 6. Lewis was also careful to explain what words could not do (pp. 313–326).
11. The Abolition of Man (Macmillan, 1955) p. 85. See also Lewis’s discussion of the misuse of the word “community,” p. 42.
12. Ibid., p. 86. In That Hideous Strength, the good scientist William Hingest explains why this inevitably happens when man is made an object of scientific investigation. (Macmillan/Collier Books, 1965) p. 71.
13. “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” Of Other Worlds, edited by Walter Hooper (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Harvest Books, 1966) p. 84.
14. For illuminating treatments of this book and its understanding of language, see Thomas Howard’s C. S. Lewis: Man of Letters (Ignatius, 1987) pp. 159–206 and Doris Myers’s C. S. Lewis in Context (Kent State, 1994) pp. 72–111. Michael Aeschliman’s The Restitution of Man (Eerdmans, 1998), Gilbert Meilaender’s The Taste for the Other: The Social and Ethical Thought of C. S. Lewis (Eerdmans, 1978), and Peter Kreeft’s C. S. Lewis for the Third Millennium (Ignatius, 1994) are excellent expositions of Lewis’s intellectual assault on scientism, relativism, and the like.
15. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader the subject appears in the sufficiency of the Lone Island’s defense of the slave trade (using corrupting metaphor) and in the Dufflepuds’ sudden clarity when they want something from Lucy; in The Horse and His Boy, in the Calormenes’ elaborate but deceitful language; and in The Magician’s Nephew, in Uncle Andrew’s rationalization of his sending a little girl to another world.
16. That Hideous Strength, p. 43. In a meeting of the insiders at Belbury, Wither asks the others to call torture “scientific examination” (p. 240), and Frost calls the loss of morals and affections “objectivity” (p. 299).
17. Ibid., p. 87. Mark has become a propagandist, and Lewis also shrewdly analyzed their techniques. See pp. 98, 99, 128–130.
18. Letters of C. S. Lewis, p. 147.
19. That Hideous Strength, pp. 78–80.
20. Letters to Malcolm (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Harvest Books, 1964) p. 52. For other examples, see pp. 51–55, 74, 92–93, 96–97.
21. That Hideous Strength, pp. 52–53. See also pp. 95 and 119–120.
22. Ibid., p. 97. For Wither’s clarity, see p. 240. He is discussing the problems with torture as a way to extract information and the best way to get Mark to tell them where his wife is.
23. Ibid., p. 353. The passage is a frightening description of damnation.
24. See also John 9:35–41; Rom. 11:7–10; 2Cor. 4:3,4; Mt. 15:14; Rev. 3:17.
25. The Collected Essays ,etc., vol. 4, p. 504.
26. The Abolition of Man, p. 88. As one who would not conform his soul to reality, Orwell was left trying to force reality to fit his wishes, which can only be attempted through technique. Lewis would have seen economic and political forces to be temptations, not causes, and Orwell’s treatment itself part of the problem. See “‘Bulverism’,” God in the Dock, pp. 271–277.
27. The Great Divorce (Macmillan, 1946) p. 74.
28. The Last Battle (Macmillan/Collier Books, 1970). It is also a study in effective lying and propaganda. See pp. 77–78 and 101–102.
29. Another way of understanding Puzzle is to see him as suffering from the Deadly Sin of sloth or acedia.
30. The steps can be found on pp. 17ff, 35f, 49, 54–55, 69, 88–89, 94, 102–103, 119–121, 124, and 127–135. From that point the story describes Mark’s rescue from the damnation he has chosen.
31.That Hideous Strength, p. 130.
32. A simple example: Mark’s wife Jane has been having horrifying dreams. The people at St. Anne’s recognize them as visions, but she is still frightened. One character tells her to think of them as news, and given only that one small but accurate word, Jane is able to accept them. Ibid., p. 188.
33. Ibid., pp. 321–322.
34. Letters to Malcolm, p. 104.
35. For an explanation of the necessity of accepting the biblical images, see Mr. Caldecott and Mr. Duriez’s essays and the references therein in The Pilgrim’s Guide, edited by David Mills (Eerdmans, 1998), and also Lewis’s “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” pp. 164–166, and Letters to Malcolm, pp. 51–56, 92–93, 96–99.
36. That Hideous Strength, pp. 359–360.
37. The Abolition of Man, p. 25.
38. That Hideous Strength, pp. 41, 299. Hingest, the only one who rejects Belbury, does so because it is not to his taste, but his remarks show that his taste has been formed by theTao(pp. 71–72).
39.The Abolition of Man, p. 24.
40. Mere Christianity (Macmillan, 1960) pp. 86–87.
41. “Cross-Examination,” God in the Dock, p. 263. Lying, Lewis wrote a friend, is saying “what you know to be untrue. But to know this, and to have the very ideas of truth and falsehood in your head, presupposes a clarity of mind.” Letters to an American Lady (Eerdmans, 1971) p. 51. He would have agreed, I think, that a man can lie so much that he loses that clarity of mind, at which point he becomes a liar, even though he cannot recognize a lie.

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. “To See Truly Through a Glass Darkly” appeared in the January/February 2002 issue of Touchstone and is a slightly abridged version of an essay with the same title that appeared in The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness, a collection of essays he edited.

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