Do not read this book!

Charles Williams points out that English mystic classic The Cloud of Unknowing is “all but impossible to read”. Why? It’s not just that it’s confusing. Or that it’s written in Middle English. It practically begins with a curse, forbidding you from reading it!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

I charge thee and I beseech thee, with as much power and virtue as the bond of charity is sufficient to suffer, whatsoever thou be that this book shalt have in possession, whether by property, or by keeping, or by bearing as a messenger, or else by borrowing, the inasmuch as in thee is by will and advisement, though neither read it, write it, nor speak it, nor yet suffer it to be read, written, or spoken, by any other or to any other, unless it be by such a one or to such a one as hath (in thy supposing) in a true will and by a whole intent purposed him to be a perfect follower of Christ. And that not only in active living, but also in the sovereignest point of contemplative living the which is possible by grace to be come to in this present life by a perfect soul yet abiding in this deadly body.

-The Cloud of Unknowning, Prologue

We’ve never recovered from mass conversions

In fact, it is doubtful whether Christendom has ever quite recovered form the mass-conversion of the fashionable classes inside Rome and of the barbaric races outside Rome. Those conversions prepared the way for the Church of the Middle Ages, but the forcibleness of the conversions also prepared the way for the Church of all the after ages. It is at least arguable that the Christian Church will have to return to a pre-Constantine state before she can properly recover the ground she too quickly won.

Her victories, among other disadvantages, produced in her children a great tendency to be aware of evil rather than of sin, meaning by evil the wickedness done by others, by sin the wickedness done by oneself. The actuality of evil does not altogether excuse the hectic and hysterical attention paid to it; especially to those who appear to be deriving benefit from it; especially to benefits which the Christian spectator strongly disapproves or strongly desires. Even contrition for sin is apt to encourage a not quite charitable wish that other people should exhibit a similar contrition.

-Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove, p.86

Also, I’ve seen this sort of reasoning used as a stick to beat baby-baptisers with, but in fact I think it should probably be reserved for beating fans of conquest-evangelism.

I think he’s right here, though I’d never considered how this has shaped Christianity for the past 1600 years (and continues to shape it today). When the church in a place like China is pursecuted and driven underground, does that return it to this necessary pre-Constantinian state in some sense?

Human confidence never good for the Gospel

In his book on church history, Williams explores how persecution varied under the different emperors of Rome. It turns out the ones who most had their own lives under control were the nastiest to the people of God. The ones who were bigger sinners were more friendly.

The “good” Emperors had come to regard Christianity as evil, as all tolerant and noble non-Christian minds tend to do. Partly, no doubt, the best Emperors had the highest idea of their duty to the safety of the State. But also they had the highest sense of moral balance and the least senseof the necessity of Redemption. The worse Emporors – Commodus, Heliogabalus – had a more superstitious impulse which was certainly more in accord with the asserted dogmas of the Gospel. Gods, and the nature of the Gods, are likely to be better understood by sinful than by stoical minds.

-Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove, p.28

Stones that fit many temples

This is a good passage on the early church heresy of gnosticism. Lest you think it only hung around in the second century, take a look at how he describes it here. Sound familiar?

By definition, all men were in need of salvation; therefore, of faith and repentance in faith. The Gnostic view left little room for the illuminati to practise love on this earth; “they live as though they were indifferent,” and Irenaeus. The Church anathematized the pseudo-Romantic heresies; there could be no superiority except in morals, in labour, in love.

See, understand, enjoy, said the Gnostic;

repent, believe, love, said the Church, and if you see anything by the way, say so.

In some sense, the Gnostics avoided any “scandal” to the mind and soul. The stones they offered fitted the corners of many temples; only not of the City of Christendom.

-Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove, p.25

Also the dichotomy of “see, understand, enjoy” versus “repent, believe, love” is very striking to me. The gnostic does his mental gymnastics properly so he can enjoy things in life without having to bother with repenting and the monumental task of loving. He can talk a great deal about love, with the odd side effect of not ever having to love. I see myself on a bad day.

Protection amidst persecution

Even under persecution in the Roman empire, Christians were in some ways protected:

Their burial places remained undistrubed, guarded by all the severe care of the Roman law for sepulchres. Cemeteries belonged to the Dii Manes, the gods of the underworld, and the mercy which the Genius of the Emperor refused in the light of the Roman day, the dark divinities beyond the tomb retained, as if in an awful recognition of the God who had gone among them and returned. The catacombs have been preserved us by that care, and by the careful legalism of the Roman Pontiffs who watched the propriety of the dead. Nor apparently were churches, when at last they came to be built, usually attacked. The Roman law was very careful of property.

-Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove, p.20

It makes me think that even if Christianity becomes persecuted in the United States at some point in the future, it will likely still be one of the best places to live while things get sorted out. Better then Pakistan at least.

Thank God we dodged that bullet

On occasion, I get distracted by Yahoo’s little entertainment headlines. They usually turn out to be a waste of time, but this piece on how futuristic movies got it wrong has some real gems. In describing George Orwell’s “Big Brother” piece, we are given some keen insight:

George Orwell envisioned a future dominated by a government organization called the Ministry of Love that intrusively monitors the actions of its citizens, political nonsense that spews forth from massive TVs, and songs that are written by computers. Instead we have the Department of Homeland Security, 24-hour cable news in high definition, and T-Pain. Thank God we dodged that bullet.

The monopoly on rebellion

Since post-modernist revolutions, and especially the political and social atmosphere of the 1960’s in America, the popular notion is that an idea only has value if it is nonconformist – if it goes against an establishment of some sort. So even today we get art and literature with people visciously attacking Victorian sensibilities… just like they were 50 years ago, while continuing to turn a blind eye to their own problems. Girard hit’s the nail on the head here:

…we live in an intellectual universe that is all the more conformist of its belief in possessing a monopoly on nonconformist views and methods. That much obviates any genuine self-criticism. …we keep stuffing the old and dried sacrificial skins with straw and standing them up in order to beat them down for the thousandth time.

-Rene Girard, Things Hidden Since the Founation of the World, p.40

We are post-Christian (Especially if you don’t realize it)

In response too all the atheist bestsellers of the past few years (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris), David Bently Hart has written a thorough, brainy, flame-thrower response. I love the title: Atheist Delusions: The Christian and its Fashionable Enemies.

Liberals and secular humanists have all these good things they want to do for the world – feed the children, bring peace and justice, etc. Except they insist on doing it without God, especially the God of Christianity. As if these noble, altruistic desires are inherent in human nature (despite everything Darwin and Freud said). Bah. Hart points out here how all these nice ideas are NOT secular. They are derived straight from Christianity.

“…a society is truly modern to the extent that it is post-Christian.”  That is, “modernity is not simply a ‘postreligious’ condition; it is the state of a society that has been specifically a Christian society but has ‘lost the faith.’  The ethical presuppositions intrinsic to modernity, for instance, are palliated fragments and haunting echoes of Christian moral theology.  Even the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal quality, or basic human dignity that pre-Christian Western culture would have found not so much foolish as unintelligible.”

-David Bently Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian and its Fashionable Enemies, p.32

Without Jesus, these things aren’t just weakened, they’re crackers.

(I saw this blogged about in several other places.)

Girard takes this even further from another angle and asserts that some form of theology MUST be the basis of all contemporary thought, even if you don’t realize it.

…what guides our interpretation is only a conceptual system dominated by the idea of divinity, a theology. Skepticism concerning religion does not abolish this theological perspective. We are forced to reinterpret all religious schemata in terms of divinity because we are unaware of the surrogate victim ([Girard’s theory of religion]). If one examines psychoanalysis [Freud] and Marxism [socialism] closely it becomes evident that this theology is indispensable for them. It is indispensable for all modes of contemporary thought, which will collapse whenever what we have said concerning the king and the god is finally understood.

-Rene Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, p.57

What kind of God is he really?

Merton writes on the incarnation:

The Lord would not only love His creation, emptying Himself, hiding Himself, as if He were not God but a creature. Why should He do this?

Because he loved his creatures, and because he could not bear that his creatures should merely adore him as distant, remote, transcendent and all powerful. This was not the glory that he sought, for if he were merely adored as great, his creatures would in their turn make themselves great and lord it over one another.

For where there is a great God, then there are also god-like men, who make themselves kings and masters. And if God were merely a great artist who took pride in His creation, then men to would build cities and palaces and exploit other men for their own glory. This the meaning of the myth of Babel, and of the tower builders who would be “as Gods” with their hanging gardens, and with the heads of enemies hanging in the gardens. For they would point to God and say: “He too is a great builder, and has destroyed all His enemies.”

God said: I do not laugh at my enemies, because I wish to make it impossible for anyone to be my enemy. Therefore I identify myself with my enemy’s own secret self.

-Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, ch.39

And this is why I have a hard time buying John Piper’s flavour of Calvinism, where God is glorified by (fill in the blank terrible thing) because he’s large and in charge. It seems out of line with the humility of the incarnation, Jesus.

Also, “He too is a great builder, and has destroyed all His enemies.” That sounds closer to the god of Islam. That’s what you get with an incomplete Trinity.

Pretty people on TV

Here’s a sentiment:

Television drives me crazy sometimes because everybody is so good-looking, and yet you walk through the aisles of the grocery stores, and nobody looks like that. Somebody told me that in London people don’t judge you as much by the way you look, and I think it is true because late night on PBS they play shows out of England and the actors aren’t good-looking, and I sit there wondering if anybody else is watching and asking the same question: Why aren’t the actors in London good-looking? And I already know the answer to that question, it is that America is one of the most immoral countries in the world and that our media has reduced humans to slabs of meat.

-Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz, p.225

And something along the same lines, this time from a song:

Movies, TV screens reflect just what you expected
There’s a world of shiny people somewhere else
Out there following their bliss
living easy, getting kissed
while you wonder what else you’re doing wrong

-The Weepies, Not Your Year

I have to say though I don’t agree much with this, the first statement especially. Sure the people on TV are beautiful. They actors are largely cool guys and the actresses are pretty girls. But seriously, these people aren’t particularly special. They have good make-up, are well lit and have $300 haircuts and $3000 outfits. That helps, to be sure. But there are plenty of people just as good looking in our little college town.

My wife and I are watching the latest season of Survivor. One of the contestants is this blonde bombshell named Sydney. People are always talking about how amazingly pretty she is. Really? She sure doesn’t smile very much.

George Clooney looks great in a suit. That’s why you always see him in a suit. Always.