Chronological Snobbery – Part 2

In the first post on the topic of chronological snobbery we looked at what C.S. Lewis meant by the phrase and we considered two reasons for its particular prevalence in our own day. In this post and the next I would like to explore related ideas from two thinkers that have been helpful to me, René Girard and Craig Carter.

Girard was a profound and original thinker whose work ranges over many disciplines. I am familiar with only a few small slices of that work, but some of those slices have been eye-opening. Consider his reflections on the words of Jesus in Matthew 23:29-30.

29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 

Girard focuses in on the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees as they built tombs and monuments for prophets who were harassed, persecuted, and killed by their forefathers: “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” He considers this as a kind of spirit, an attitude of the heart that any of us can adopt.

In the context of his broader theory of mimetic desire and the scapegoating mechanism, he describes this impulse as a mob of the living scapegoating the dead. For our purposes, we can simply say it is the attitude whereby one generation or group condemns those who came before them, exonerating themselves.

Girard points out one historical example of this in the phenomenon of Christian anti-Semitism, the kind that blames the Jews for killing Jesus. It says “if we, who are the spiritual children of Abraham, had been there when Jesus was crucified, we would not have joined the actual children of Abraham in condemning and killing Jesus. We are better than them. We alone would have resisted the mob. We would have stood by him when all had deserted him. We would have been willing to be killed with him rather than deny him.”

When one lays out what such an attitude really claims, as I did above, it starts to be seen for what it is. But usually the claim to superiority is not parsed and exposed for what it is. A claim like that is really more about the person making it than about the people he or she is supposedly superior to. At bottom, such statements are saying something like: “If everyone was as innocent as I am the world would be better. Therefore they must not be innocent like me, because someone has to be responsible for all this mess.”

Ask any high school class if they think they would have stood up against the Nazis if they had lived in Germany leading up to and during WW2. Most will say they would have resisted, which is to claim that if Germany had been populated with 21st-century North American teenagers instead of Weimar-era Germans, Hitler would not have done what he did. More pointedly, it is to claim that each of those students raising their hands, students who allow their wardrobes, attitudes, mannerisms, and vocabulary to be dictated by the passing fads and peer pressures of their social peers, yes these paragons of strict moral virtue, would have had the backbone to stand against what was an immense amount of social pressure and very real threats to their reputations, social standing, finances, and very lives.

In Romans 2:1, the apostle Paul writes “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” We live in a time when forces all around us seem to be working hard to whip up offense, outrage, and judgment towards the other. But not all judgment is the same. Some judgment is warranted and needed, but a lot of it is spiritually dangerous.

What do I mean by spiritually dangerous? Well, I mean that it is dependent on sin and it fosters sin. To judge others for what I am guilty of is to reinforce my own blindness to that sin, thereby distancing myself further from the truth about myself that might lead me to repentance and freedom. It is much harder to admit to a sin that I have clearly – and perhaps publicly – judged another for. I am less able to see it in myself when I get a kick out of pointing it out in others.

So this leaves the one judging further from the grace of humility, further from the grace of gospel sanity, further from the grace of honesty about my sin. These are graces that flow from Christ and to Christ.

When one takes this principle and applies it, what happens? It becomes very difficult to stand in judgment over our historical predecessors, because we now see that to do so is to fall into a very dangerous spiritual trap. It is the trap of saying that we are better and we would not have done what they did.

But does this rule out any and all criticism of the past? Quite the opposite: It allows for the kind of criticism that is good for us, rather than a danger. When I recognize that in the garden of my own soul grows the same root that in others bore such heinous fruit, it motivates me to weed it out. When I recognize that there is more than a little family resemblance between their sin and my own – if not in the fruit, then in the root – this encourages humility.

Indeed the effect is precisely the opposite of what self-righteous criticism produces, namely a deepening blindness with regard to my own expressions of whatever fault I am pointing out in others married to a swelling pride at being found so much superior.

The best writers of history intuitively (or perhaps intentionally) treat their subjects with this kind of moral sensitivity. They do not fall into moral relativism, which may be an enjoyable intellectual hobby for rich and comfortable Westerners, but is insufferable in the face of actual evil. Neither do they unleash a full one-dimensional moral tirade against historical villains, painting them as uniformly evil characters. Rather they preserve the humanity of both heroes and villains, allowing for nuance and being honest about the shortcomings of the heroes as well as the positive qualities of the villains, all while writing with a sense of moral clarity. This kind of history proves informative and beneficial to the reader. It is humbling, sobering, inspiring.

Moving from history to the contemporary, we can apply this idea to so many current cultural issues. For example, I see a lot of folks these days eager to tear down statues of people who, terribly flawed and implicated in evil as they may have been, are nevertheless in many ways their betters. Leaving aside the specific arguments for or against any particular monument, or even for the taking down of statues in general, I just want to point out that this kind of fury, this kind of one-dimensional judgment of those in the past, is spiritually dangerous for all the reasons described above.

To take an example from the opposite side of the culture wars, we have the phenomenon of so many conservative religious leaders who were so thundering in their denouncing of sexual immorality being revealed to be sexually immoral themselves. Zacharias, Falwell, Hybels, and the list goes on and on. We all know such failures do not happen overnight. So we have someone publicly denouncing a sin in others that they are not just struggling against but positively nurturing in their own hearts.

This can happen on the political left as much as on the right, both inside and outside the church. But from my perspective, which is admittedly conservative, it does seem to be a particularly fashionable attitude among progressives on the left these days. If you think I’m wrong about that, let me know why in the comments.

In the next and last post on chronological snobbery I’ll discuss some ideas I’ve appreciated from the writing of Craig Carter.

Peter Nimble

There is lots to love about this book. A great title, a great first line, and moments of brilliance throughout. The story moves at a fine clip and carries the reader along to an exciting finish. My kids read this book as part of their schooling and they adored it, so I wanted to read it also. I can see why they were taken with it! It certainly leaves the reader wondering what will happen next at each chapters’ end. And while I enjoyed reading this book, I wanted to enjoy it more. There were a few hindrances and shortcomings that impeded that enjoyment. As a debut novel, I say bravo and well done! If I were to write a first novel this good, I’d be a happy man indeed. And so I offer some thoughts – in a spirit of constructive criticism – on what kept this book from being, to my mind, on par with the classics.

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First, while the breadth and playfulness of a fertile imagination is on display throughout the book, there is a certain lack of cohesion and gravitational center to that imagination. The worlds, characters, landscapes, buildings, and monsters are all fantastical and creative, but it felt like there was something lacking that would draw them all into a narrative that fit together well. This unpredictability can give the reader a kind of whiplash as she tries to keep pace with the story. A few unexpected twists and turns makes a story interesting; but constant unexpected turns undermines the stability of the narrative and gives it a chaotic feel.

Second, and related to the first point, is the issue of world-building. This is the bread and butter of all fantasy-fiction. The author must build a world that is believable. But believable does not mean it must conform to our world. As Tolkien said, the key is that world must be internally consistent – what happens there must make sense within the framework of that world. This is the secret ingredient that explains why some fantasy worlds feel real, like Middle-Earth, Narnia, and Aerwiar, and others don’t. The author here shows real promise in the world that he creates, and yet fails to fully convince the reader that this place is so real in his own mind that all this could really take place.

Third and last, stories are irreducibly moral. The best stories are deeply moral, for it is the moral instinct in myself as a reader that makes me care deeply about the characters. On this point, once again, the author does a good job with some characters but does not quite pull off a complete victory. We see some development in Peter Nimble, but not a whole lot. His moral character remains quite static, while his self-understanding grows as he discovers his true identity and steps into the role he has been destined for. Sir Tode seems to me to be more promising, for we find out he is largely a fraud and has not truly earned his knighthood. Yet this assumed persona of a brave knight seems to draw out his courage and moral fibre and self-sacrifice. By the end of the book, despite the dubious origins of his knighthood, he has grown into the true picture of knighthood. This seems to exemplify something that C.S. Lewis pointed out: when growing in virtue, we often start by behaving as if we were more virtuous than we really are, which can feel like a kind of pretending or false persona. But if persevered in, this is often the route by which we do really become virtuous.

The best stories have a moral depth that speaks deeply to the reader about right, wrong, goodness and evil. While the book had a pretty clear moral compass (unlike the nihilistic morally-relativistic nonsense that sometimes gets passed off as modern fiction these days), it would have been improved, and would leave a deeper impression on the reader, if the characters’ moral trajectory had been explored more deeply.

All in all, a very fine book. I look forward to reading some more of Auxier’s fiction and seeing how he has grown as an author over the years.

Watching Out for the Wrong Thing

“The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.”
This short paragraph in letter 25 of the Screwtape Letters made me realize that I often watch out for the wrong thing, or guard against the extreme that I am in the least danger of falling into. For example, I am by nature a bit timid and reserved. I don’t like confrontation at all. If I’m honest with myself I’m far more often a coward than a bully, and yet I am usually far more worried about not being ‘too bold’ or ‘too forceful’ than being a coward. The error I’m likely to fall into is lack of boldness and yet I usually guard against excessive boldness. This seems backwards.
Likewise, in my spiritual life I tend to avoid structure, discipline, and rigid plans. I like my freedom. I guess I tell myself I’m guarding against legalism, but let’s be honest, I am far more likely to fall into laziness and complacency than ritualistic legalism. On top of that, one of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit is “self-control” (Gal. 5:23).
I think this is true corporately as much as it is individually. In some churches, worship times seem to be emotion-free.
“Leave your affections at the door please.” Worship is more of a cognitive assent to propositional truths. They say they are guarding against emotionalism, but let’s be honest – their danger is not emotionalism but intellectualism. The opposite is true of other churches of course. It seems that when there are two groups who emphasize opposite ends of a given spectrum, the effect is to polarize both towards extremes as they react against the other, which frankly leaves each one worse off than before.
We all land at different places on a number of continuums like this. I find it helpful to zoom out a little bit and gain some perspective on the whole.

A Dozen Incompatible Philosophies Dancing About Together In Your Head

Uncle Screwtape Trades in Pen & Paper for a ThinkPad

This is why I love C.S. Lewis. He takes what you inherently know to be true and puts it into words. This is just as true today as it has ever been – the reason people believe this rather than that goes far deeper than evidence. Thanks to Michael Krahn for nudging me to read Lewis – I grabbed this off my shelf yesterday and read it at the beach (the wind blew it into the water too… but with minimal damage).

“Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false,” but as “academic” or “practical,” “outworn” or “contemporary,” “conventional” or “ruthless.” Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. 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. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.”

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

I really see this at work in our day. There are philosophies and ways of thinking that are exciting and new, and the climate and vibe of our culture makes them even more appealing. But the draw is not truthfulness or explanatory power, it is more like some weird alignment with one’s internal compass – it feels right on a deeper level – if that makes any sense.

So my question is: Do you then try to present Christianity fundamentally as true or as more exciting [or whichever desired adjective] than the rest? Or both?

What do you think?