Jack Niewold's Blog

Viewing Church and Culture Through The Great Tradition

A Five-Minute Summary of the Novel “Home” by Marilynne Robinson (2008)

Summary of Marilynne Robinson, Home (2008)

This is the second book in Robinson’s trilogy that began with Gilead (2004) and ended with Lila (2014). All the action takes place in and around the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, a town in the southwestern corner of the state. Two aging ministers, one Presbyterian and one Congregational, live as neighbors. Their wives are both deceased and they both tend small flocks of the faithful at their respective churches in town. The time setting is the 1950s.The Congregational minister is John Ames, whose story comprised Gilead. That book is essentially a long love letter to his infant son Robby, who shows up in Home at five years old. At seventy, John Ames has found the love of his life, a much younger woman named Lila, who comes to his church one stormy night. The two marry, in spite of their age difference and cultural backgrounds, and a son is born. Ames knows he will not live much longer, so he writes the letter to inform his son, when he is old enough to read it, of his life, ancestry and times.

The Novel Home, on the other hand, is the story of events in the parsonage of Rev. Robert Boughton, the Congregational minister. Since the two books, Gilead and Home, cover contemporaneous matters, there is some telling of the same tales but from different perspectives. Boughton and Ames, the two ministers, are best of friends, and their conversations on the meaning of various Biblical doctrines and stories are extremely well thought through. Marilynne Robinson is no theological lightweight, unlike many contemporary Christian novelists.

Rev. Robert Boughton is dying, and his daughter Glory comes home to care for him. She is 38 with a murky past and has become something of a spinster. Boughton has several other children, some quite successful. But he also has an enigmatic son, Jack, who was his most troublesome child and has not been home for twenty years. But Jack has always been the Reverend’s favorite child. Jack’s life too is murky, but he is a brilliant man who seems hunted by someone or something. It turns out that he is indeed a fugitive, not form the law, but from a love affair he had with a black woman in St. Louis. He comes home to sort out his life, and he and Glory form a strong bond with one another. His coming home is preceded by a letter, but his later departure, though long expected by his father and sister, still seems sudden.

Jack Boughton is a modern prodigal son, and his story, temptations and character are what this book is all about. There is not much of a plot, but the book moves along, borne aloft by Robinson’s exquisite prose and her keen insights into human nature.

Glory, the baby of the family, spends her days with her father reliving old memories. “But oh, the evenings were long. I am thirty-eight years old, she would say to herself, as she tidied up after supper. I have a master’s degree. I taught high school English for thirteen years. I was a good teacher. What have I done with my life? What has become of it? It is as if I had a dream of adult life and woke up from it, still here in my parents’ house.”

The letter arrives from Jack that he, too, is coming home. All of Boughton’s kids have longstanding grievances with Jack, who was a dark and sometimes cruel adolescent. Glory tells herself not to be angry. “She reminded herself of this because Jack would probably be insufferable and she had spent all her patience elsewhere.” They had fought as children. But when Jack shows up some months later, he is deferential, polite and somewhat gallant. As they adjust to one another, she realizes that neither of them had intended to be there, but had both turned up at this time due to some divine force. The two warm up to one another; she takes to gardening, he to cultivating the irises and repairing an old DeSoto in the barn.

Gradually, Glory, for all her inbred piety, realizes that she is not so different from Jack, that they are both fugitives. They are both keenly aware of the meaninglessness of their lives, both long to find that meaning in coming home, and both fearful that it will once again elude them. Thinking of the Bible one day, Glory muses: “What a strange old book it was. How oddly holiness situated itself among the things of the world… It expresses the will of God to sustain us in this flesh, in this life. Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful. He lets us wander so we’ll know what it means to come home.”

Jack and Glory talk about religious things, and he confesses to a certain spiritual hunger, and asks if Glory, who was always the religious one, is going to try and save his soul. After a little banter, he says: “It is possible to know the great truths without feeling the truth of them. That’s where the problems lies. In my case.” Glory ponders the conversation, and thinks to herself, “he was so practiced at reciting what he was also practiced at rejecting.”

One evening, the neighbor Rev. Ames, who was Jack’s godfather, came to dinner with his wife Lila and their son Robby. Jack was nervous all day, not sure how he would get on with Ames, with whom he had had frank words in the past, and from whom he had once stolen a baseball mitt. As they all sat down for dinner, Ames asked old Boughton to offer the prayer, and Boughton referred it back to Ames. There was a silence, and then Jack spoke up. He had prepared a table grace and asked if he might say it. “Jack glanced at Ames, who shrugged, and he began to read. ‘Dear Father,’ he said. He paused and studied the paper, leaning into the candlelight. ‘My handwriting is very poor. I crossed some things out. ‘You are patient and gracious far beyond our deserving.’ He cleared his throat. ‘You let us hope for your forgiveness when we can find no way to forgive ourselves. You bless our lives even when we have shown ourselves to be utterly ungrateful and unworthy. May we be strengthened and renewed, to make us less unworthy of blessing, through these your gifts of sustenance, of friendship and family’. And then, ‘In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.’”

Jack is full of unexpected admissions and confessions, and he and his sister learn to love each other more as the days pass. One day, following the church service held by Rev. Ames which Jack had attended, he was approached by Glory in the barn. He was sitting dejected in the old DeSoto. It seemed to Jack that Ames had taken a potshot at him in his sermon. “Consider our situation, Glory,” he said. “Two middle-aged people in decent health, sane and civilized, generally well disposed toward the world—perhaps I am only speaking for myself here—sitting in an abandoned DeSoto in an empty barn, pondering one more thoroughly predictable and essentially meaningless defeat. Does that strike you as odd?”

Jack has a self-effacing humor that is low key and mildly ironic. But he often expresses the feelings of his sister more clearly than she can herself. He is the voice of the fugitive in many of us, the sense that we are both guilty of something and vulnerable to something beyond our control. He enjoys putting unanswerable philosophical questions to the two old reverends.

As the months pass, both father and son seem to decline into weariness and a sense of death. The early bonhomie fades. Old Boughton begins to be slightly confused, and Jack becomes more devious and flip. Glory observes it, and suggests various remedies But nothing seems to be working. Jack is aware of his influence on the home, but he also seems unable to please his father or leave. He comes home drunk one night and brings all of this to a head. But old Boughton’s increasing senility means he has little memory of the recent confrontation, and he asks Jack to play “Softly and Tenderly” on the piano. The old pastor knows he is dying, and his senility grows worse as the days progress. Jack and Glory decide to call the siblings and let them know their father doesn’t have much time left. Jack agrees to stay with Glory until shortly before the others arrive and then be on his way, aware that his presence will disturb the family.

Jack goes next door for one more conversation with Ames, an event covered in some detail in the first book Gilead. Jack says little about it, but Glory finds him playing a hymn on the piano and takes comfort in that. A woman, Della Miles, had been part of their many conversations. In some way, she and Jack were connected back in St. Louis, or perhaps Memphis. Jack had sent her many letters, but they all came back unopened. One day, Glory picked up the mail and there was a letter for Jack from Della. He read it and let everyone know that the time for his leaving was coming soon. He would leave as soon as Teddy, an older son and a doctor, had arrived.

In the meantime, he had gotten the old DeSoto running, and so he took Glory and old Boughton for a spin around Gilead. Then they all went to bed. In the morning Glory came into the kitchen and Jack was there in a suit (people traveled in suits in those days) with his suitcase. “Now you know where to come when you need help,” Glory told him. “Yes,” he replied. “Ye who are weary, come home.” Jack said his goodbyes, took $40 that Glory offered him, and set off. “He was too thin and his clothes were weary, weary. There was nothing of youth about him, only the transient vigor of a man acting on a decision he refused to reconsider or regret. No, there might have been some remnant of the old aplomb. Who would bother to be kind to him? A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face. Ah, Jack.”

I won’t spoil things by giving you the final scene,, but it brings many things together in this most wonderfully mystifying of books. Glory’s final thoughts at the end are: The Lord is Wonderful.

A Five-Minute Summary of Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House”

Summary of “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens, 1853

Bleak House is many things, but what it is not is an inferior novel. Dickens even into the 20th century was often considered a lightweight in the same way Felix Mendelssohn was considered lightweight. Fortunately better heads have prevailed, and this amazing novel now sits among the very best of the century and among the best of all time.

In reading Bleak House, the reader is advised to keep pushing ahead. There are places where the prose becomes dense, and it is best to jump ahead a few pages. One of the characteristics of the novel is that there are two narrators: Esther Summerson herself, and an authorial omniscience that sets the context and provides a sense of moral censure towards Chancery and other aspects of Victorian England.

Bleak House is the story of Esther Summerson through the first twenty years or so of her life. Esther, like Charlotte Bronte’s great heroine Jane Eyre, is an orphan. The heroic orphaned woman was a major theme in Victorian literature: Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch fame was an orphan; Charlotte Bronte’s other great novel Villette starred the orphaned Lucy Snowe; Henry James’ great Portrait of a Lady has as its protagonist the orphaned Isabel Archer; Even Willa Cather casts the central role of her O Pioneers! in the person of the orphan Alexandra Bergson.

Dickens’ vast tableau features many interesting characters in a plot that almost defies description. Nominally the story of the saintly Esther Summerson, it is also the tale of John Jarndyce, a wise, rich and deeply good man who is Esther’s guardian, and later intended husband. It is also the tale of London’s poor, working class, and impoverished landed gentry. It is the story of the breakdown of the old hierarchical order in England, of the social disaster that industrial development often was, and of the Byzantine process of legal transactions that often led to the ruin of both defendant and plaintiff. Some of the worst villains are rich lawyers, and some of the best characters are from the struggling middle-class as well as the landed aristocracy.

The main theme, like the cantus firmus of a Baroque chamber piece, is the spiritual and worldly progress of the delightful and beautiful Esther Summerson. She and two cousins are taken in by their rich relative John Jarndyce, and she plays a role in the redemption of a number of lives, including another orphaned girl Charlotte, or Charley; Caddy, the castoff daughter of an irresponsible mother Mrs. Jellyby; a little boy named Peepy; a crusty old man burned out trying to get his case heard by Chancery (if the novel has an overarching evil spirit, it is the unfeeling, unsensing High Court that grinds on slowly and exceeding finely, ruining life after life); a waif named Jo who figures as a kind of victim of a cruel system; and Esther’s own cousin, Richard, who was once a vivacious member of her original threesome. Richard weds Ada, the third member of the original trio of orphans, but he dissipates himself in a futile quest to win his inheritance at Chancery. His efforts and obsession exhausts him and finally kill him.

Esther, in trying to help Jo the waif, contracts smallpox and nearly dies. When she recovers, her appearance has changed due to the scarring of the disease. She seems to lose nothing of her charm and confidence, however, and the central men of her life find her even more beguiling.

Along the way we meet dozens of interesting types and persons: the “telescopic philanthropy” of Mrs. Jellyby, who spends all her time trying to help natives in Central Africa while neglecting her own family; the incorrigible selfishness of the entertaining and charming Harold Skimpole; the common heroism of George Rouncewell, a discharged trooper who can’t seem to find himself but who blesses everyone he crosses; Inspector Bucket of the London police, who helps Esther track down her tragic mother Lady Dedlock; and Allan Woodcourt, a somewhat unsuccessful doctor to whom Esther is finally married.

Somewhere near the middle of the novel, Esther and her mother, Lady Dedlock are reunited for a short time. Lady Dedlock had been deceived by a relative who informed the mother that her newborn daughter had died. Now, making the discovery that her daughter is alive, she is distraught and wishes her daughter to disown her. Esther is all forgiveness. “I looked at her, but I could not see her, I could not hear her, I could not draw my breath. The beating of my heart was so violent and wild that I felt as if my life were breaking from me. But when she caught me to her breast, kissed me, wept over me, compassionated me, and called me back to myself, when she fell down on her knees and cried to me, ‘O my child, my child, I am your wicked and unhappy mother! O try to forgive me!’—when I saw her at my feet on the bare earth in her great agony of mind, I felt, through all of my tumult of emotion, a burst of gratitude to the providence of God… I told her that my heart overflowed with love for her…I held my mother in my embrace, and she held me in hers; and among the still woods in the silence of the summer day, there seemed to be nothing but our two troubled minds that was not at peace.”

Her mother tells her that they will never meet again. Then she flees. Like a Greek tragic character, Lady Dedlock seems driven by some force of guilt and shame that not even the forgiveness and reassurance of Esther can still. She will eventually run out into the storm and perish at the grave of her lover and Esther’s true father.

Esther Summerson grows closer and closer to her guardian John Jarndyce, many years her senior. They plan to marry and she is meant to become Mistress of Bleak House, the Jarndyce estate. It is not stated where Mr. Jarndyce’s fortune comes from, but he is a generous as well as a circumspect philanthropist. When Allen Woodcourt appears after years at sea, however, Esther begins to doubt her love for Mr. Jarndyce. Finally, she and Allan confess their mutual love, but she tells Woodcourt that she is betrothed to Mr. Jarndyce and must be faithful to her commitment. Jarndyce is such a good man that she does not despair, but her real love is for Woodcourt.

As you read this difficult but magnificent novel, you will begin to construct your own ending, so I won’t spoil things by telling you how the book ends. Esther does end as the Mistress of Bleak House, but the turns and twists along the way are what make the book what it is, a ripping good yarn!

Near the end of the book is a chapter called “Beginning the World,” which is the telling of the death of Richard, whose young wife Ada is pregnant with their child. During the recent past, Richard and John Jarndyce, formerly close confidantes, had grown estranged when Richard’s obsession with winning his case colored his life and broke his health. Richard is on his death bed. “’It was a troubled dream,’ said Richard, clasping both my guardian’s hands eagerly. ‘Nothing more, Rick, nothing more,’ replied my guardian [John Jarndyce]. ‘And you, being a good man, can pass it as such, and forgive and pity the dreamer, and be lenient and encouraging when he wakes?’ ‘Indeed I can. What am I but another dreamer, Rick?’ ‘I will begin the world!’ said Richard, with a light in his eyes. A smile irradiated his face, as Ada bent to kiss him. He slowly laid his face down upon her bosom, drew his arms closer round her neck, and with one parting sob began the world. Not this world, O not this! The world that sets this right.”

I hope you make time in your busy lives for this moving, edifying, ennobling novel.

Five-Minute Summary of the Novel “Jane Eyre”

Here is a summary of the novel “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte, 1847

Jane Eyre is the name of the heroine of the novel by that name, authored by Charlotte Bronte when in her early thirties. Jane appears in the beginning of the book at age ten, living with her cruel aunt, Sarah Reed. Mrs. Reed, whose husband had died, has three children who torment and physically abuse Jane. Jane, like so many characters in nineteenth century novels, is an orphan. We will encounter more orphans. Her parents are both dead of typhus, and she seems to be without any other relatives.

A kind Mr. Lloyd makes it possible for Jane to move out of Gateshead (the Reed home) and go to Lowood School. When the headmaster, Rev. Brocklehurst, comes to interview her, things start off on the wrong foot immediately. “Do you read your Bible?” he asks. “Sometimes,” Jane answers. Do you like the Psalms, he asks. “No sir. Psalms are not interesting,” she says. “That proves you have a wicked heart; and you must pray to God to change it.”

Jane and Mrs. Reed have an epic confrontation before the girl heads off to Lowood, and Jane is the winner of the battle. She relishes her having put Sarah Reed in her place. She soon sets off for her boarding school. It’s a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire, however, as she encounters a level of misery worse than at home with the Reeds. The food is especially disgusting, and the rooms are cold. Rev. Brocklehurst believes the girls should be toughened up, but some end up dying. One is a poignant loss to Jane, Helen Burns. Helen had befriended Jane when others treated her unfairly, and the two girls have a sweet and deep relationship. Helen is saintly and patient, whereas Jane is somewhat skeptical and passionate. Helen exercises a great influence on Jane, but Helen has tuberculosis and soon dies. “I am going to God,” Helen tells Jane on her deathbed. “Who is God?, Jane asks. “My maker and yours,” Helen answers. “God is my Father; God is my Friend. I love Him. I believe He loves me.”

Jane says later in the novel that some years later someone had returned to Helen’s unmarked grave and placed a tombstone there with the inscription “Resurgam” (“I will rise again”). It is generally understood that Jane herself had placed the headstone.

Helen’s death marks Jane tremendously. Gone is the willful girl. The book is a tale of Jane Eyre’s spiritual and moral progress, and after she leaves the school at age nineteen, she goes to an estate called Thornfield where she is the tutor of a younger girl. Soon a rugged and handsome man about fifteen years her senior shows up. He is Edward Fairfax Rochester, the master of the house. A somewhat enigmatic figure, slightly cruel in some ways and not above playing with Jane’s emotions, Mr. Rochester is a quintessential nineteenth-century Byronic Hero. In addition to his hauteur, he carries a secret to which the servants allude but do not share with Jane.

Incidentally, the novel will be the story of Rochester’s spiritual progress too, as the later chapters show.

Jane’s initial conversations with Mr. Rochester are rich and pointed, and Rochester soon learns that he has something of an intellectual peer in his home. “Dread remorse when you are tempted to err, Miss Eyre; remorse is the poison of life,” he pontificates. She replies, simply: “Repentance is said to the its cure, sir.”

As time goes on in her stay at Thornfield, Jane is drawn to Mr. Rochester, first by infatuation and then by love. She is perhaps 19, he 35. Mr. Rochester disappears for days, weeks at a time, and would return home suddenly. He has soirees in his estate’s ball room, and it is obvious that other women from neighboring estates see him as an eligible bachelor. Another mysterious person, Grace Poole, inhabits Thornfield Hall. Her role is not easily apparent, but she is paid well. It is thought by Jane that some strange noises and occurrences in the home are the doings of Miss Poole.

One night, while a party is taking place in Rochester’s home, Jane comes upon a macabre character in the library. This person, who does not show her face, questions Jane about her inmost intentions, and tells her fortune. This is indeed a fortune teller. Finally, Jane realizes that this has been Mr. Rochester all along. Later that night, strange noises occur on the third floor over Jane’s room. She assumes it is the strange Grace Poole, and goes on with her life.

Jane hears from a visitor that Mrs. Reed, her cruel aunt, is dying, and makes the trip back to Gateshead to visit. Jane has already forgiven her aunt for her behavior and hopes that the old woman will have softened and will admit her errors. The woman wants no reconciliation, however, and insults Jane as she has always done. Something troubles her conscience, however, and she admits that she has lied to keep a sizeable inheritance from Jane. Jane considers that a bad deed has been done, but has never been desirous of worldly wealth, and lets the matter go.

Upon her return to Thornfield following the aunt’s death, Jane and Mr. Rochester confess their love for one another in the garden. Once having done this, a storm quickly comes up and lightning splits a nearby chestnut tree. The lovers do not make much of this, but hasten to get indoors where they both go to their rooms. Later they plan their wedding, but during the night Jane is visited by a terrifying presence in her room. A large woman hovers over her in the dark, and then enters her closet and removes her wedding veil, which she proceeds to tear in half. It must have been Grace Poole, Mr. Rochester tells Jane the next day, but Jane is unconvinced.

Did I mention that this novel has many Gothic aspects? There are more.

The day of the wedding comes, and while Jane and Edward are at the altar, the ceremony is disrupted by a mysterious man who announces that Mr. Rochester is already a married man. He claims that the wraith-like being on the third floor is Rochester’s wife. Rochester admits that he is technically married but that his wife Bertha, whom he was tricked into marrying, is mad and dangerous. He leads the wedding party and guests up to her room to see her. Grace Poole, it is revealed, is the beast’s caretaker.

The vicious animal attacks Rochester as he positions himself between it and Jane. A fierce struggle ensues and the beast is finally subdued. “This,” Edward says to the gathered witnesses, “is my wife. Such is the sole conjugal embrace I am ever to know… And this,” he continues, laying his hand on Jane’s shoulder, “is what I wished to have… Off with you now. I must shut up my prize!”

The identity of Jane’s nocturnal visitor is revealed. Bertha, the vampire-like beast, had escaped when Grace Poole had become drunk.

Jane is in shock. “I lay faint, longing to be dead… One idea only still throbbed life-like within me—a remembrance of God. It begot an unuttered prayer: these words went up and down my rayless mind, as something that should be whispered; but no energy was found to express them: ‘Be not far from me; for trouble is near; there is none to help’” (Psalms 22:11). The schoolgirl who did not like the Psalms when questioned by Rev. Brocklehurst years before turns now to the words of David in her distress.

Rochester promises to put Bertha away and take Jane to the south of France, where she will be mistress and lover. Jane refuses these desperate and reprobate pleas. Her sense of duty and morality is too strong for such a solution. “It would not be wicket to love me,” Rochester protests. “It would to obey you,” she tearfully replies. “What shall I do, Jane? Where turn for a companion, and for some hope?” “Do as I do,” she replies. “Trust in God and yourself. Believe in Heaven; hope to meet there again.”

One of the most important statements of the book occurs at this juncture: “While he spoke, my very conscience and reason turned traitors against me. ‘Oh, comply!’ it said. ‘Think of his misery. Who in the world cares for you?’ Still indomitable was my reply—‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad, as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigor… Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.’”

Jane flees in the early morning, and sets out on a harrowing journey on which she nearly dies of hunger and exposure. She finally collapses, destitute and malnourished, at the door of the home of Mr. St. John Rivers. Rivers is a Calvinist clergyman, and lives on the moor with his two sisters Diana and Mary. After several days of care, Jane revives and begins to delight herself in the piety and kindness of the two sisters. Mr. Rivers is a different story; he is severe, distant, and lives out his Calvinism to the last full measure. For all his froideur, however, Rivers is attracted to Jane. He proposes, wanting her not so much for herself as for a ‘helpmeet’ on his planned missionary journey to India. Jane refuses his insistent entreaties.

One snowy night, St. John Rivers returns with a letter from a Mr. Briggs, an attorney. The letter is a circular, and asks if the reader knows the whereabouts of a young woman with the description, name and history of Jane Eyre. Our heroine had changed her name to Jane Elliott to avoid Rochester’s attempts to pursue her. Rivers, who has figured out who she really is, tells Jane that her sole remaining relative, an uncle on the island of Madeira, has died and left her a fortune of 20K pounds. And then he follows with a real shocker: he and his sisters are Jane’s cousins by another family line. His own middle name is “Eyre.”

Jane eventually divides her inheritance with them, leaving herself 5K pounds, a still considerable fortune.

Jane leaves Moor House, the name of the Rivers’ home after she hears a mysterious voice saying: “Jane,! Jane! Jane!” She recognizes the voice as Rochester’s. “Once more on the road to Thornfield, I felt like a messenger pigeon flying home,” she thinks. But when she returns to Thornfield, she finds the house a burnt-out ruin and imagines the worst. Asking around, she learns that Rochester’s wife had set it ablaze and run to the roof to die in the flames. Rochester had attempted to rescue her, but could not and was badly injured and blinded when the house collapsed. He now lived thirty miles away in a wooded house in a much more remote region.

I will not spoil the book by telling you the conclusion. It is one of the most moving episodes in literature. Suffice it to say that Rochester is a different man. He has repented of his former libertine ways and has had a religious conversion. Jane is much matured herself. Author Bronte structures the final chapter as a postscript, written some years later by Jane, to give an update of some of the major characters. St. John Rivers is most interesting. He has gone, unmarried, to India. “He may be ambitious yet,” she writes. “But his is the sternness of the warrior Great Heart, who guards his pilgrim convoy from the onslaught of Apollyon.” When you read Part II of the Pilgrim’s Progress, you will meet Mr. Greatheart, who leads Christian’s wife and children to the Celestial City, and who also does battle with Apollyon.

Jane closes the novel with the words: “Amen: even so come Lord Jesus.”

A Five-Minute Summary of “Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh, 1945

Summary of Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh, 1945

When Evelyn (pronounced EE-vel-in) Waugh published Brideshead Revisited in 1945, he was a conservative, a believer in England’s class society, and a Christian. He had not always been these things, but had had a religious conversion in 1930 that brought him into the Catholic Church . He was one of the finest prose masters of the 20th Century and wrote many other books. Brideshead is considered by many critics his finest, and it was popularized in England in 1981 through a television series.

A word about Catholic writers is necessary, because many in the Baptist tradition, including at one time myself, have long considered Catholicism a deviant form of Christianity. There really are two Catholicisms: the ritually ossified old form that was universally detested by theologians and thinkers within the Protestant tradition, which was “modernized” in the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s and which has divided into several schools, one of which is a left-leaning wing that has influenced many priests over the past fifty years. This is the only Catholicism most people are acquainted with. Another Catholic tradition is the one I respect and indeed look to for much of my spiritual sustenance.

The Catholicism I respect is the newer form that arose in the 20th century in response to the writings of G. K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox and J. R. R. Tolkein. Even C. S. Lewis had a close affinity with British Anglo-Catholicism. When you speak of twentieth-century Christian prose and poetry, you are to a large extent talking about the new Catholic intellectual tradition that grew out of the works of these writers. In addition to those I have already mentioned, this tradition made possible Flannery O’Connor, Hillaire Belloc, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, Henri Nouwen, Czeslow Milosz, Jacques Maritain and even Marshall McLuhan. Contemporary poets such as Dana Gioia and Mary Karr are part of the new tradition, as is the nonfiction writer Kathleen Norris. Ann Rice, the purveyor of vampires, has been in and out of the Catholic Church two or three times, though she seems unable to finally come to terms with its persistent traditionalism. Today the finest intellectual journal, First Things, is Catholic in origin. Some of the leading apologists of our faith are catholic: Peter Kreeft and J. Budziszewski among them.

All of which is to say that anti-Catholic sentiment can be overdone and may lead one into serious error. Mainstream Catholicism always needs to be handled carefully, but it is not difficult to find many wonderful allies and friends inside the Church of Rome.

Well, what about the book that the Catholic Evelyn Waugh wrote? Brideshead is a novel about the aristocratic Flyte family in England after World War One. It is the tale of Charles Ryder, a commoner befriended by one of the Flyte sons, Sebastian, and Ryder’s relationship with Lord Marchmain, the patriarch of the Flyte family, Marchmain’s estranged wife Lady Marchmain, their other children, and especially Julia Flyte.

The subtitle is important, as they so often are: “The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder.”

We do not have time for a detailed plot description. The book, compared with others we have read, is short at 350 pages, and can be read in a few evenings. Here is a brief synopsis, with a little help from Wikipedia. I will follow this up with a short section from the book so you get a flavor for Waugh’s prose:


In 1923, protagonist and narrator Charles Ryder, an undergraduate studying history at Hertford College, University of Oxford, is befriended by Lord Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of the aristocratic Lord Marchmain and an undergraduate at Christ Church. Sebastian introduces Charles to his eccentric and aesthetic friends, including the haughty and homosexual Anthony Blanche. Sebastian also takes Charles to his family’s palatial mansion, Brideshead Castle, in Wiltshire where Charles later meets the rest of Sebastian’s family, including his sister Julia.

During the long summer holiday Charles returns home to London, where he lives with his widowed father. The conversations there between Charles and his father Edward Ryder provide some of the best-known comic scenes in the novel. Charles is called back to Brideshead after Sebastian incurs a minor injury, and Sebastian and Charles spend the remainder of the holiday together.

Sebastian’s family are Roman Catholics, which influences the Marchmains’ lives as well as the content of their conversations, all of which surprises Charles, who had always assumed Christianity to be “without substance or merit”. Lord Marchmain had converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism to marry his wife, but he later abandoned both his marriage and his new religion and moved to Venice in Italy. Left alone, Lady Marchmain focuses even more on her faith, which is also enthusiastically espoused by her eldest son, Lord Brideshead (“Bridey”), and by her youngest daughter, Cordelia. Sebastian, a troubled young man, descends into alcoholism, drifting away from the family over a two-year period. He flees to Morocco, where his drinking ruins his health. He eventually finds some solace as an under-porter and object of charity at a Tunisian monastery.

Sebastian’s drifting leads to Charles’s own estrangement from the Marchmains. Charles marries and fathers two children, but he becomes cold towards his wife and she is unfaithful to him, and he eventually forms a relationship with Sebastian’s younger sister Julia. Julia has married but separated from the rich but unsophisticated Canadian businessman Rex Mottram. This marriage caused great sorrow to her mother, because Rex, though initially planning to convert to Roman Catholicism, turns out to have divorced a previous wife in Canada, so he and Julia ended up marrying in the Church of England.

Charles and Julia plan to divorce their respective spouses so that they can marry each other. On the eve of the Second World War, the ageing Lord Marchmain, terminally ill, returns to Brideshead to die in his ancestral home. Appalled by the marriage of his eldest son, Brideshead, he names Julia heir to the estate, which prospectively offers Charles marital ownership of the house. However, Lord Marchmain’s return to the faith on his deathbed changes the situation: Julia decides that she cannot enter a sinful marriage with Charles, who has also been moved by Lord Marchmain’s reception of the sacraments.

The plot concludes in the early spring of 1943 (or possibly 1944 – the date is disputed). Charles is “homeless, childless, middle-aged and loveless”. He has become an army officer after establishing a career as an architectural artist, and finds himself unexpectedly billeted at Brideshead, which has been taken into military use. He finds the house damaged by the army, but the private chapel, closed after Lady Marchmain’s death in 1926, has been reopened for the soldiers’ worship. It occurs to him that the efforts of the builders – and, by extension, God’s efforts – were not in vain, although their purposes may have appeared, for a time, to have been frustrated.


Waugh was attempting to express his Catholic faith in literary form, so one doesn’t want to look for explicit testimonies and earth-shattering visitations of the kind we Baptists are famous for. But in the course of the book, several apparent conversions occur: that of the raffish Lord Marchmain, who returns home to die and has a reconciliation with the church; the libertine and alcoholic Sebastian, who ends up content in a monastery in Tunisia; the adulteress Julia, who loves Charles Ryder but comes to see that marrying him is sinful; and Charles Ryder himself.

Ryder’s conversion is what the book is all about. His off and on relationship with the Flyte family leads him back to the estate during the Second World War, when the house is abandoned and under military control. He is now an officer. The house is damaged, but Ryder finds the family chapel unscathed. “There was one part of the house I had not visited, and went there now. The chapel showed no ill-effects of its long neglect; the art-nouveau paint was as fresh and bright as ever; the art-nouveau lamp burned once more before the altar. I said a prayer, an ancient, newly learned form of words, and left, turning towards the camp; and as I walked back, and the cookhouse bugle sounded ahead of me, I thought: Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame… I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones… I quickened my pace and reached the hut which served us for our ante-room. ‘You’re looking unusually cheerful today,’ said the second in command.”

A Five-Minute Review of The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

Summary of The Screwtape Letters, written by C. S. Lewis in 1941.

The framework for the book is a series of letters written by Screwtape, a high-ranking devil in the bureaucracy of hell, to his nephew Wormwood. The letters have to do with Wormwood’s main assignment: to corrupt the soul of a Christian man and to lead him, in the end, to perdition. If he fails, his own soul becomes forfeit in the unending miseries of the nether regions.

“Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment,” said Lewis concerning this book. The subject matter depressed him. “The work into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst, and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded. It almost smothered me before I was done. It would have smothered my readers if I had prolonged it.” The book is short by Dickensian standards, at about 170 pages.

Lewis simply jumps in. He offers no background, no overarching geography so familiar to those who have read Tolkien, no primordial history in the manner of Milton’s Paradise Lost. We are dropped flat into an exchange of letters between the old devil and the young devil. Already here Screwtape is instructing his protégé in the ways of killing a soul. “Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. [Today Screwtape would use the word “cool” or “awesome”.] That’s the sort of thing he cares about… By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?”

Things begin to go badly wrong for Wormwood right away. In the second letter, Screwtape writes this: “I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian. Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties… In the meantime we must make the best of the situation.” In the third letter, Screwtape lays out one of the most effective stratagems for sidelining the young Christian: “Keep his mind on the inner life… Keep his mind off the most elementary duties by directing it to the most advanced and spiritual ones.” It is especially important for Wormwood to address his patient’s prayer life: “Encourage him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularized; and what this will actually mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part.” This will resonate with the inner-directed spirituality of our own times, complete with our prayerless lives.

You can see how this is going to go with Wormwood and his “patient.” As the book unfolds, the younger devil tries to tempt his patient to more and more extreme and wicked sins, while Screwtape advises caution. “The safest road to hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts”. Remember Christian’s “Enchanted Grounds” in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress?

In Letter XXII, Uncle Screwtape is punished by his supervisor by being turned into a large centipede. This happened, he says, as he had been in the midst of a diatribe against music and silence: “Music and silence—how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell—though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express—no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise—Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the universe a noise in the end. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress…”

Had the use of the word “Heaven” In his earlier diatribe doomed Screwtape to become a centipede? We don’t know. But it may have been forbidden in Hell to even mention the existence of Heaven. Again, how like our times this is, when the idea of a humanly fulfilled eternal life is widely dismissed and ridiculed.

Meanwhile, the “patient,” as humans are called, has fallen in love with a young, Christian woman, and this only makes things worse for Wormwood. “My dear Wormwood,” writes Screwtape, “through this girl and her disgusting family, the patient is now getting to know more Christians every day, and very intelligent Christians too. For a long time it will be quite impossible to remove spirituality from his life. Very well, then; we must corrupt it.” Screwtape devises a plan: they will attack at the borderline between politics and theology.

“You will find that a good many Christian-political writers think that Christianity began going wrong and departing from the doctrine of its Founder, at a very early stage. Now, this idea must be used by us to encourage once again the conception of a ‘historical Jesus’ to be found by clearing away later ‘accretions and perversions’ and then to be contrasted with the whole Christian tradition… We thus distract men’s minds from Who He is, and what He did. We first make Him solely a teacher, and then conceal the very substantial agreement between His teachings and those of all other great moral teachers. For humans must not be allowed to notice that all great moralists are sent by the Enemy, not to inform men, but to remind them, to restate the primeval moral platitudes against our continual concealment of them. We make the Sophists; He raises up a Socrates to answer them.”

The quest for the “historical Jesus” has been a frequent tool of intellectuals to turn people away from the Christ found in the
Gospels. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is but the latest in this two hundred year series. Early Christianity, we are told, was far more diverse and interesting than the later formulations of the Church allowed. The secret is to go back and discover the point at which the early vitality was frozen in creed, to strip away the orthodoxy and reveal the more interesting Jesus of the earliest times. This is the meaning of Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood at this point.  The Jesus Christ of the biblical Gospels must not be allowed to stand as he is depicted there.

In the end the patient dies in an air raid and goes to Heaven. Screwtape tells Wormwood that his, Wormwood’s, judgment is at hand, and that he will become a part of his daily diet. The devils are, first of all, cannibals of one another, and now it is time for Wormwood to suffer for his failures. One thinks of the Greek myth of Prometheus, where the proud hero goes to Hades for giving fire to mere mortals and suffers eternally by having his liver eaten daily by an eagle.

One of my favorite parts of this book comes a moving passage in Letter VIII:

“You must often have wondered why the Enemy [Screwtape’s name for God] does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids him to use. Merely to override a human will would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo… He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please him best. We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table, and the more their will is interfered with, the better. He cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

The Screwtape Letters comprises 31 letters, a perfect number for reading over the course of a month as daily devotions. As an exposition of the diabolical mind at work in the affairs of men, it is still unsurpassed, seventy-five years later.

A Five-Minute Summary of the Allegorical Novel “Pilgrim’s Progress”

The following is a Summary of Pilgrim’s Progress Part I by John Bunyan (1678)

Like Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605) the book depicts a man in conflict with his times, struggling for an authentic existence. In “Quixote,” the authenticity was the recovery of the chivalric ideal of the Middle Ages. In “Pilgrim,” the authentic life is one lived in obedience to Jesus Christ and a faithful traversal of a hostile and often frivolous world. Many of the characters in the novel are based on individuals and types of persons Bunyan was familiar with. We shall meet some of them.

The book is written as an allegory; that is, it presents reality through a series of likenesses and representative types. Bunyan, in his preface, puts it this way: “May I not write in such a stile as this? / In such a method too, and yet not miss / Mine end, thy good? Why may it not be done? / Dark clouds bring waters, while the bright bring none.”

The opening conjures Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita / Mi retrouai per una selua oscura / Che la dritta via era smarrita,” wrote the 14th Century poet. “In the middle of life’s journey I found myself alone and in a dark woods.” The narrator of Pilgrim’s Progress falls asleep: “As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep. And as I slept, I dreamed a Dream.”

The Dreamer-Narrator, whose name we do not know, sees a man clothed in rags, a book in his hand, leaving behind him his home and family, as well as his town, called the City of Destruction. He is burdened by a heavy weight on his back. The man comes to Evangelist, who points in the direction of the “Wicket Gate,” where he promises he will find relief from his burden.

On his way to the Wicket Gate, Christian encounters several people such as Mr. Worldly-Wise, from the town of Morality, and goes through a town called Legality, where he is instructed in certain religious observances that are intended to lighten his burden. He finds no rescue, however, and is soon on his way again. He meets Evangelist once more, who challenges him to keep to the path and not turn aside. Finally he makes it to the Wicket Gate, where the door is opened by Mr. Good Will. Christian has not yet been relieved of his burden, however, but Mr. Good Will tells him to continue his journey along the straight path until he comes to a place called Deliverance, where his burden will fall off his back of itself.

For a time, Christian is at the home of Interpreter. The meaning of this episode is in dispute, but some scholars believe the Interpreter is prevenient grace, divine grace extended the sinner prior to his finding salvation. Here Pilgrim is warned that many temptations will come to pull him aside from the way of salvation.

Still burdened by his weight, Christian struggles up a small hill at the top of which is a Cross. “He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending, and upon that place stood a Cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a Sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the Cross, his Burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do, till it came to the mouth of the Sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.” Three Shining Ones come up to him: the first tells him his sins are forgiven, the second strips his rags from him and clothes him anew, and the third gives him a scroll which he is to present when he comes to the Celestial City. Christian, in joy, sings a song: “Blest Cross! Blest Sepulchre! Blest rather be / The Man that there was put to shame for me.”

Christian sets out on his pilgrimage, but immediately is accosted by all kinds of characters. He mounts a hill called Difficulty. Mr. Mistrust attempts to make him afraid. Christian tells himself that “a Christian man is never long at ease. / When one fright’s gone, another doth him seize.” He comes to the home of Discretion, where three ladies, Prudence, Piety and Charity, take him in and refresh him. They ask him, as did Mr. Good Will, why he has not brought his wife and children. He tells them that he entreated them over and over, but that “my Wife was afraid of losing this world, and my children were given to the foolish delights of youth.”

Christian’s family’s own pilgrimage to the Celestial City is the theme of Part II, which we will not get to here.

Christian spends some time in the Delectable Mountains, where he gets his first view of the Celestial City in the distance. But he no sooner emerges from there than he encounters one of the most famous characters of the book, Apollyon (Rev. 9:11). A fierce half-day battle ensues, but Christian is victorious, and the monster, who represents temptation, flees. We will encounter Apollyon again in our next summary, which will look at the novel Jane Eyre.

Christian is joined by Faithful. Soon, a Mr.Talkative attaches himself to them and makes their conversation miserable. But Christian and Faithful are able to keep Talkative at arm’s length and have long, joy-filled conversations, by which they are both encouraged.

Soon they enter the town of Vanity Fair, which they plan to transit without stopping. Vanity Fair is, as the name attests, a place of constant partying, drinking and revelry. It is much like our own times: the greatest license and carnality wedded to intolerance and ignorance. But, again similar to our times, behind the debauchery is an iron fist of intimidation and hate, and Christian and Faithful are put in a public cage in chains. They continue to proclaim the gospel to passers-by.

The narrator says of Vanity Fair’s citizens: “Few could understand what they [Christian and Faithful] said, for they naturally spoke the language of Canaan. But they that kept the Fair were the men of this World: So that from one end of the Fair to the other, they seemed barbarians each to the other.” Yet a few were won over to the side of Christ through the public witness of the two travelers.

Faithful is put on trial under the judge, Lord Hate-Good. Three witnesses slander Faithful, Mr. Envy, Mr. Superstition, and Mr. Pick-Thank. The jury have names just as descriptive. Faithful is found guilty and executed and burned. Christian escapes, but with him goes one of those won over, a Mr. Hopeful, who will continue with him the rest of his journey. Christian takes up a song to honor his slain friend: “Sing, Faithful, Sing, and let thy name survive,/ For though they kill’d thee, thou art yet alive.”

As Christian and Hopeful continue on their way towards the Celestial City, Christian instructs Hopeful in the doctrines and practices of the faith. They cross a narrow field called Ease, where they are refreshed, and come to a hill called Lucre, where they are hailed by a man named Demas (II Timothy 4:10) to stop and dig for treasure. They refuse his entreaties and come to a river called The Water of Life, where they rest, eat fresh fruit, and find medicinal leaves for their afflictions.

They go on, but become discouraged again. They find a pleasant place called By-Path Meadow, which is not far off the path. Christian leads Hopeful through a stile there, and soon they are overcome with darkness, storm and fear. Hopeful tells Christian that this will work out for their good. But their misery deepens, and they decide to try and go back. “But by this time the Waters were greatly risen, by reason of which the Way of going back was very dangerous. Christian despairingly utters one of the most profound statements of the book: “Then I thought that it is easier going out of the way when we are in, than going in when we are out.”

They lay down to rest, not realizing they were on the grounds of Giant Despair and his abode, Doubting Castle. In the morning, the giant catches them and throws them in his dungeon, where he starves and beats them. Christian brings up the idea of suicide, but Hopeful dissuades him. Christian here remembers that he has a key in his bosom called Promise, given him earlier by one of the three maidens who dwelt at the Palace called Beautiful. He opens the dungeon and the Iron Gate, and the two make their way back to the King’s Highway.

“Out of the way we went, and then we found / What ‘twas to tread upon forbidden ground.”

Four shepherds give them shelter and help them recover, and then take them on a tour of the Delectable Mountains. From the heights, the shepherds show them the mountains to avoid as they continue, give them a “Note [of directions] of the Way,” and warn them to avoid two things: The Flatterer, and sleeping on the Enchanted Grounds.

As they once again set out, they are joined by a man named Ignorant. “Be content to follow the religion of your company,” Ignorant says, “and I will follow the religion of mine.” They leave him behind, but he tags after them persistently. Christian and Hopeful have many conversations, all wonders of compression and simple wisdom, which it is profitable for any seeker to read.

They are met by The Flatterer, who poses as an angel of light, and they are led astray. A true angel finds them and sets them free, but scourges them so they may not forget to read the Note of the Way that they were given. Then they come to the Enchanted Grounds, one of the greatest temptations they have faced. Hopeful grows sleepy and wants to lie down, but Christian urges him on. They are so close to the end of their journey, and the Shepherds had explicitly warned them to avoid sleeping in this place.

The Enchanted Grounds conjure Tennyson’s The Lotus Eaters here. Ulysses’ mariners are nearly home, but they are pulled off course by the voices of those on an island. “Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore / than labor in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar; / Oh rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.”

With Christian’s help, Hopeful is able to escape  the Enchanted Grounds and the two continue on.

The last twenty pages of the novel are sublime, as Christian and Hopeful tell one another their stories. Ignorant joins them once again, and they share the gospel with him. They touch the subject of what Calvinists call “total depravity.” Ignorant tells them: “I will never believe that my heart is thus bad.” Ignorant makes the case for what might be called merely religious Christianity, the false faith that rests on one’s own duty and good deeds. Christian rebukes Ignorant and invites him into the true faith that comes through repentance of one’s own efforts. The time is short, he tells Ignorant.

At last, the two come to The Gate, but first they must cross a fearful river, which is, of course, death. Christian becomes fearful, and like Frodo Baggins at the Crack of Doom, where he balks to throw the ring into the cauldron, cannot go through the river. Hopeful steps into the waters, and tells Christian they aren’t so deep as they look. The waters, it turns out, are as deep as one’s doubts, as shallow as one’s faith is strong. Christian “was much in the troublesome thoughts of the Sins that he has committed, both since and before he began to be a Pilgrim.” “Brother, I see the Gate, and Men standing by to receive us,” yells Hopeful. “Be of good cheer: Jesus Christ maketh thee whole.” “Oh, I see him again,” exults Christian, “and he tells me, ‘When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee. And through the Rivers, they shall not overflow thee” (Isaiah 43:2).

The two make it across, and a Heavenly Host comes out to greet them. Our narrator steps into the dream, and tells us that he saw the men transfigured as they entered the Gate. “Now, as I was gazing upon all these things, I turned my head to look back, and saw Ignorant coming up to the Riverside.” Ignorant makes it across with surprising ease, and approaches the Gate of the Celestial City. But two angels seize him and take him to a door into the side of the hill. “Then I saw that there was a Way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven, as well as from the city of Destruction. So I awoke, and behold it was a Dream.”

As in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the theme here is that a man must be careful and trusting on God, and above all obedient, as he passes through this vale of tears. As Jim Elliott wrote in his journal before his martyrdom: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

Spoiled Sons: A Great Danger to a Republic

Recently over at Facebook I posted concerning Barack Obama and the ways his political style parallels the rebellion of Absalom, son of King David. Absalom attacked Jerusalem and David went into exile, leaving his concubines to watch over his palace. Absalom’s first act in taking over the seat of power was to publicly rape his father’s concubines in order to win over the hearts of those populists for whom “getting even” is always the supreme end of political conquest.

There are a number of political styles, and David’s and Absalom’s exemplify two styles. David had been primarily a uniter with some inconsistencies, while Absalom was a divider without the least self-doubt.

Dividers appeal to what is base in people rather than what is noble. The desire to get even never fails to garner large public approval since there are always those who resent the world that is and desire to bring it down, or “transform” it, if you will. Dividers will often use methods designed to scandalize the virtues and values of a dominant segment of the population in order to solidify the loyalty of those who hate the prevailing norms.

Barack Obama is a divider nonpareil. Some of this is owing to his relentlessly ideological approach to governing. Nothing is more central to his style than progressive doctrinal rigidity. Some of it is, however, even more pernicious than progressive dogmatism, which is saying something.

There is in the President a kind of gratuitous malevolence against his political enemies. As is well known, he is much less tolerant towards his Republican counterparts than he is towards even the most depraved of regimes such as Iran and North Korea. One wishes to hear the President address, say, Syria, Russia or the mullahs in the impatient and harassing tones he reserves for our most faithful ally in the Middle East, Israel. One wishes in vain.

Why this inversion of normal political and personal values?

Much of it a learned response to reality. We live in a world where a popular culture largely steeped in the spirit of rebellion and antinomianism holds sway over much of our youth and emerging adults. Never mind that this rebellion is largely hypocritical and hugely profitable for its practitioners. The rebel trope is now so engrained in the secular western worldview that it is unquestioned and even taken as normative and prescriptive.

Much of the President’s learned response is also ideological. Marxism and its French critical apparatus is expressed as the necessity to vilify and outrage one’s opponents. “Epater la bourgeoisie,” goes the old Socialist maxim: Violate the decorum of the enemy. In this sense, the liberal mindset makes everything profoundly personal. This also explains the central role of profanity and obscenity on the left, and the imperative to “shame” those who dissent. Sarah Palin or Brendan Eich, anyone?

The President’s typical responses were learned as a child in his mother’s political rants as a member of the New Left. They are the legendary stuff of student intimidation of faculty and administrators, where their effectiveness has been almost complete. They have been tested in the street theater of ’60s anarchists such as Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and Norman Mailer. They reflect the tactics of the community organizer, whose binary worldview splits humanity into oppressors (whites, Christians, capitalists, landlords, entrepreneurs) and oppressed (certain minorities, women, millionaire rappers, criminals, deviants of many kinds, homosexuals) with no commonalities among them.

This urge to piss on one’s opponents persists in the President’s manner and policies. Many of his initiatives make no sense apart from this psychological trait, and attempts to find a consistent thread in his policies are largely unsuccessful.

One might even conclude that as Absalom had no compelling need to rape his father’s concubines, at least from the perspective of his will to power, his decision to do so derived from the sheer pleasure of humiliating his closest family members. As a spoiled son, he had already killed one of his brothers, an act that resulted in his banishment from Israel for a number of years. When he came back, he was resentment personified, and took his revenge, personally.

And perhaps that is another reason the President acts as he does. Like Absalom, he was a coddled and spoiled child who developed a chip on his shoulder, and now in some way, beneath all the ideology and progressive sanctimony, there still beats a heart of one cheated and determined to get even.

God spare us.

Advice to My Young Friends

As I approach the three-quarters-of-a-century mark, I have a few pieces of advice for my young and younger friends. All of us grandfathers do this from time to time, so I simply ask your indulgence as I pass on a few tidbits of insight.

Do most of your memorizing as young as you can: Key Bible verses, important and favorite sections from Shakespeare, lyrics of a few Jerome Kern or Oscar Hammerstein love songs, a passage or two from Jane Austen or George Eliot, and some poems of Dylan Thomas, Christina Rossetti or Robert Frost.

Learn a musical instrument as early as possible and keep up your skills into adulthood, by which time you will always have them. This takes some time and money, but there are ways around the money if you are serious about learning to play well. If you’re older and have left the piano or violin behind, return to it as soon as you can so you can recover your former skills.

The first two suggestions above will have taught you self-discipline, but in addition develop courtesy, kindness and decorum. These will not only set you apart, but will give you confidence in social situations and will help you to live with a clear conscience. Avoid crudeness, profanity and careless behavior. These will lead to unhappiness and regret.

Steer clear of as much popular culture as you can, especially that part of popular culture that centers around sex, rebellion and self-destructive activities. Too much loud music will impair your hearing. Too much rebellion will make you hard and dogmatic. There is plenty of good in popular culture, so seek that out instead.

Write letters and cards by hand, and practice speaking in full sentences. Take a day a week away from all electronic devices, and remember to turn them off when you are with other family members, even if they don’t do the same. Hang out in the biography section of your local library and learn from the lives of others.

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw to a close, when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in life.'” (Ecclesiastes 12:1). If you make habits of the suggestions above, you will always live a full life, in spite of circumstances and setbacks. May God bless you as you choose to live your life in honor of Him.

Have You Been Completely Converted?

A recent issue of Christianity Today (Jan.-Feb. 2015) magazine has the story of two conversions. I think conversion stories have a lot to teach us, and I cherish reading those of people who want to go public with their personal journeys.

One of the two conversion stories is that of Gregory Alan Thornbury, president of King’s College and an authority on mid-century evangelical theologian Carl Henry, of whom more in a moment. Thornbury grew up in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, home of Bucknell University. He was the son of a Baptist pastor and a kind of preacher’s Wunderkind in his teenage years. Then he went away to college, where he was exposed to what used to be called ‘higher criticism.”

Higher criticism was (and still is) the application of literary analysis to the Bible that had the effect of reducing the scriptures to a compilation of a variety of texts and traditions. Today you encounter an extreme form of this method in the Jesus Seminar and in the books by Bart Ehrman. I remember my own first brush with a particular strain of higher criticism called by the German name Formgeschichte while a student at Princeton Seminary in the 1970s. For me it was disorienting; for Gregory Alan Thornbury, it was nearly lethal. “Any sense that the Bible was divinely inspired and trustworthy,” he writes, “or that the creeds had metaphysical gravitas, started to seem implausible.”

Discouraged, he called his father one evening. The wise pastor counseled his son to turn to the works of a new theologian by the name of Carl Henry. Henry’s systematic theology, God, Revelation and Authority, had recently appeared, and was having a deep impact on evangelical scholars. Young Thornbury went to the library and found the work. “I kept reading for days on end. I cried and kept searching, and genuine faith began to awaken… Because Henry was a philosopher defending biblical authority, I rallied.”

Carl Henry “combined head and heart,” Thornbury writes. The young man had had plenty of heart in his boyhood religion, but he lacked the intellectual equipage to deal with the skepticism that met him in the academy and in a world that is increasingly secular.

God brings great theologians and Christian thinkers along at critical times in the world’s history. Perhaps no theologian of our time has had such a salutary impression on evangelical Christians as Alister McGrath, professor of science and religion at Oxford University. McGrath’s small book of essays, The Passionate Intellect has been a great help to me, and I look forward to reading his recent biography of C. S. Lewis. He is the author of many other important books. McGrath combines a deep grasp of modern science with classic Christian theology.

And it is to McGrath’s conversion story that we turn next from the pages of Christianity Today.

McGrath’s “first conversion” in college was largely an intellectual persuasion that Christ was Redeemer and Lord. He had previously been, in his words, “an aggressive atheist, utterly convinced of the godless worldview.” That first spiritual experience was in 1971. Yet over the next two years as a Christian, he sensed that something was missing. One day he went off to a hillside with his Bible and read carefully the book of Philippians. The magnificent portrait of Christ that is found in that short work of St. Paul completely reinvigorated McGrath’s faith.

“I grasped the importance of ‘spirituality’ for nourishing my relationship with God,” he writes. “And the great ‘Christ hymn’ (Philippians 2:5-11) helped me see my need to focus on Jesus’ life and death, and not approach him through a depersonalizing framework of abstract ideas. Previously I had tended to see my faith as something I needed to sustain; now I realized it could sustain me.”

Two men, two conversions, one convergence.

Young Thornbury had imbibed a childhood faith that was largely emotional but lacked a robust dimension of the mind. Young McGrath had an intellectual understanding of Christ, a knowledge about Jesus Christ, but he needed a personal knowledge of Christ. Each came from a different end of the mind-heart continuum and met in the middle, the vital middle, where true, mature faith in Christ is found.

We should not be surprised. Jesus told us to love God with all our heart, mind and soul.

I sense that today it is much more the case that Christians need to develop their minds (Romans 12:1-2) than their hearts. We have a strong affective faith, and our churches are full of praise music, but most Christians are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of an aggressively secular culture. We could do worse than to go to the library and pick up a book by–who else?–Alister McGrath.

Crusades, Inquisitions and All That

President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast recently has been the subject of numerous deconstructions. I admit I haven’t read the entire speech, so I can’t comment on it exhaustively, but I’ve gained a bit of perspective from partial readings and comments of others.

Going in, one has to realize that these kinds of events usually result in speeches that are easily open to criticism from those who are deeply invested in the subject matter. We don’t expect most Presidents or other public figures to mount the podium and hold forth with deep theological clarity and expertise.  To his credit, President Obama has attended numerous times during the past few years, and has spoken before (2009).

The National Prayer Breakfast dates from the Eisenhower years, and has hosted many interesting celebrities. Mark Hatfield, former Senator from Oregon, took President Nixon and Henry Kissinger–both in the audience–to task for their conduct of the Vietnam War in 1973.  Mother Theresa spoke in 1990, Dr. Ben Carson twice (1997 and 2013), British Prime Minister Tony Blair (2009), and musician Bono in 2006. Usually there are several speakers at each event, which actually lasts most of the day. Darryl Waltrip, the Nascar driver, spoke this year in addition to the President.

Prayer Breakfast speeches are often a mish-mash of religious pieties and American civil faith. Bono’s was a kind of “we-are-the-world” farrago with his unique humor thrown in. There has to be a good bit of eye-rolling around the room, but most attendees. believers or otherwise, seem to enjoy the event. At the very least, it’s a good chance for aspiring religious leaders to shake hands with a President.

Much that Mr. Obama said yesterday fits the historical pattern in terms of anodyne generalities. It was his comments on the parallels between current Islamic atrocities and ancient Christian “sins” that have caused a stir. The President should have stayed with what he knows about, which seems to be a kind of progressive Christianity of soft liberationist hue. Instead, he only proved again, as if that’s necessary, what an ignorant and pompous ideologue he is.

“And lest we get on our high horse and think [Islamic terror] is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” He also brought up slavery and Jim Crow to cinch the knot.

Therapeutic banality of the first order.

One wonders who writes this stuff. His attempts to be even-handed result in a moral equivalence that take no measure of context, historical accuracy, or agonistic construction. In speaking of the terrible recent events in the Middle East, he transitioned to deliver a series of platitudes to his audience, especially those from the evangelical side of the aisle.

In effect, he told his gathered guests, mostly Christians, that in terms of their psychological profiles, they are no different from jihadists.

But are we no different? The things we are seeing now seem indeed unique. Islamic barbarism is utterly different in kind, scope and effect from the Crusades even at their worst. Mr. Obama appears not to know that the Crusades were essentially defensive in nature. As to the Inquisition, Mr. Obama has plainly never read an accurate historical account of what the Inquisitions (they were plural) were.

The Inquisitions were an attempt by the church to remove the arbitrary persecution of heretical Christian and other groups and individuals from the hands of secular kings and princes. Sure, there were excesses, and torture and death of any magnitude is too much. But the figures, based on new sociological analyses, are these: In the 220 years of the Inquisition where records were kept (1480-1700), about ten deaths per year were meted out by the ecclesiastical courts. Torture was only rarely used. This was a violent age; recall that Henry VIII killed two of his wives, and routinely used boiling, beheading, burning and hanging to kill his miscreant subjects.

Even medieval jousting contests, the Superbowls of the day, resulted in gruesome injuries and deaths. Read the novel Ivanhoe for the details.

By late medieval and early Renaissance standards, the Inquisitions were really quite humane.

Let’s postulate that maybe 5,000 people were killed for heretical behavior, immorality or criminal activity by the Spanish “Inquisition.” Let’s even double that to 10,000. A lot of people, right? A needless loss of life? To be sure. A stain on the church? Sadly, yes.

But hardly a good week’s work for ISIS or Boko Haram. Furthermore, large-scale slaughter is nothing new for Islam. The horror stories of the fall of Constantinople to Ottoman Muslims in 1453–an event that happened roughly at the same time as the earlier, more impromptu years of the Inquisitions–shocked the Christian world by their level and scope of brutality. Whole churches were packed with Christians and set ablaze. Why do we never hear of those atrocities?

Mr. Obama’s comments about slavery also lack temporal context, are intellectually selective (biased), and appear blind to proportionality. Nobody in our culture believes any more in slavery or Jim Crow laws. Moreover, it was Christians who ultimately ended slavery in America and elsewhere. Today Indentured servanthood, a kind of slavery, is still widespread in one civilization: the Islamic. Former sins of free nations such as America, sins eradicated not from the outside but by the inner logic of the Christian belief system itself, are somehow equated with present-day sins of Islam, sins that seem ineradicably rooted in the very scriptures and cultures of that civilization.

In the end, Mr. Obama’s invidiousness stems from his ideology. He wants America to bear the preponderance of guilt in the modern world because this provides the basis for his transformational program.  For progressivism in general, historical accuracy is a bourgeois value, to be used when convenient and dispensed with when necessary in the pursuit of utopia here on earth.

The President’s words initially lead one to conclude that he has an immature view of geopolitical reality. His foreign policy, insofar as he has articulated one, seems to consist of something like the pieties so common in the 1950s: “When you point out the faults of another remember that you have three fingers pointing back at you.”

But this conclusion would be a mistake. Barack Obama’s comments indicate a fully-orbed view of the world, a view in which not merely America, but western civilization and its Christian religion have been and remain a historical anomaly and a human tragedy. And the moment has come for the score to be evened. Mr. Obama has taken it on himself to humiliate what he sees as the greatest oppressive force ever known: America.

As others have noted, it is Mr. Obama who is on a high horse. In his own way, he is the Final Crusader, the Grand Inquisitor himself, the one who will make all things right.


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