Feast of the 45 Holy Martyrs of Nikopolis
THE THEISTIC brutes on our television screens are nothing new. And, dare I say "certainly", nothing we can't handle.
The Inklings, of course, enjoyed no access to the boob tube and, had they, the boys would have rejected the medium—at least in its present state—out of hand. But for perhaps an occasional look at a news program, where their refined sensibilities would have been triply shocked at the televised horrors emanating now in the Middle East.
Despite the certificate of a Master’s degree in English literature hanging on my wall, I did not once encounter Lewis, Tolkien, or Williams in any academic context. Except for good old Owen Barfield, whose Poetic Diction stood large in the sweeping classes in literary criticism of my graduate studies in English at Kansas State University so many years ago.
Our professors had allowed Eliot, Auden, Joyce, and Yeats into the pantheon, but the great teachers, the greater men who instructed us were still considering application forms from such writers post-1900 as Conrad, James, Shaw, Wharton, Synge, Forster, Pound, Lawrence, Frost, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Waugh and more. Look, please, at that list. Might my teachers—in their zeal for classicism and enduring reverence for the exact words on an ancient page—be forgiven for not telling us about the Inklings?
What the chairman of the department, the leonine Mr. Fred Higginson, did teach us was physiognomy as displayed on the cover of our anthology of Victorian literature: Arnold, Ruskin, Cardinal Newman, Browning, Carlyle, Hopkins, Hardy, Mill. “There,” said Professor Higginson, “are the faces of men who have struggled with belief. Men who have confronted the ravages brought to contemporaneous thought by the writings of Engels and Darwin.”
Some distance, huh, from “pipe-smoking, beer-loving, high-church Englishmen”—the Inklings as described by Alan Jacobs.
As you kindly forgive my obsessive list-making, think please of the pursuit to which all of these fulsome minds from the past two centuries have directed their powers. Truth. Truth, of course, as the inevitable page to be written from their work, their belief, their trust, their daily engagement with a lying world.
I believe all evil in the world begins with a lie. In the subversion of truth begins the long, slow slide toward every affliction, every deprivation, every disease under which our long-suffering species continues to endure. And we find ourselves standing again in the fleeting shade of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, where schoolyard bullying and STDs and the televised drowning of Christians equate to the promise of a reptile.
What can Satan—bent on destruction, determined to undermine all that is good and godlike—offer to Eve but a lie? Satan’s great task, evil’s great task will always be to make something very, very bad for a human being appear to be very, very good. And so my own definition of evil has always centered on waste, on reversal, on quicksand. To my mind, the quintessence of evil asks that what is best about someone be used to that person’s everlasting harm.
The Broadway platitude says that ‘the snake must have all the lines.’ Necessarily so. Poetry can increte a falsehood, but a lie must always include some poetry. The not-good must be made to appear comely and welcome and life-giving. And so, Satan comes on to Eve in her sweetness and beauty, her innocence and her carefree laughter by suggesting that God is jealous of her, her gorgeousness, her life with this stud named Adam. Foolish Eve fails to remember that she really does have it all, even as Satan whispers that there’s something more, that the forbidden fruit involves the knowledge of gods.
And to Adam?
Adam sinning in his uxoriousness, too much taken with Even, a bit too infatuated with this buxom, this nubile and fecund creature whom God had made to be his wife. Having committed the original sin, his excuse to an accusing angel: “The woman gave me the apple, and I did eat.”
Adam, the eternal eighth-grader, did eat. And all our innocence was lost forever.
Evil exists. Wrong begins and ends in negative numbers. A lie is nothing more than the absence of truth, albeit the beginning of all wrong. There are among us those who would do us harm. Black-hooded psychopaths with methamphetamine and Allah’s promises in their bloodstream assault our media from the backs of speeding pickups with forty-caliber machine guns welded to them. Children of the lie, each of these screaming fanatics, long gone in the bloodlust that Old Scratch has always welcomed.
As for me.
The most memorable, the most profound and affecting televised event of my life came a long time ago, in the fall of 1976, when I encountered public television’s adaptation of Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, a multipart series in which Bronowski’s massive intellect addressed the emergence, the evolution, and what he believed to be the final triumph of our humanity. In thirteen episodes Bronowski ranged across the agricultural and industrial revolutions, astronomy, architecture and engineering, mathematics, metallurgy and chemistry, Newtonian and relativistic mechanics, Darwinism, atomic and quantum physics, DNA, neurobiology, and artificial intelligence. And it seemed to me—watching Dr. Bronowski talk, week after week, with ease and grace about the entire conceptual apparatus of human knowledge—that right here was a man who knew next to everything.
And then, in the most emotional moment I have ever witnessed on film, Jacob Bronowski took off his shoes to limp across some hurtful rocks, to wade into the mud of his parent’s ashes. He walked in a business suit into the flotsam of hatred, knelt down, took a handful of wet, dripping earth, looked into the camera, and he said, “This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”
And then Jacob Bronowski, an atheist I believe, began to pray. Attempting to explain all holocausts, he stood at the cyclonic intersection of knowledge and certainty—that nowhere place where judgment suspends, where people really do believe they know it all, an obscene place where compassion doesn’t stand a chance in hell. And Jacob Bronowski prayed the prayer of Oliver Cromwell, a man of no uncertain opinions himself. The prayer was this: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you might be mistaken.”
“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you might be mistaken.”
I think now that I lost my innocence at that moment. I lost my happy naivete watching television, as an old man knelt among his ancestors, wrestling with the unavoidability of sin, struggling to understand how human beings—to whom across the generations Bronowski had assigned such nobility and intelligence, such decency—how human beings could treat other women and children and men in such a horrific way. Just before PBS slipped back to a pledge-break, it occurred to me that my fellow creatures were capable of evil.
And if they, then most assuredly I too was capable of evil. My education, my Catholicism, a rural code of integrity and hard work aside, I too was capable of doing great wrong for no other reason than that I was absolutely certain it was the right thing to do.
But, because the Lord and Creator of Adam’s universe will not allow it to end badly, He has given us His Son, Who has told us to “Go and teach all nations.” And for those who refuse to listen, who reject The Word, in His righteous and unfailing wisdom, our God has anticipated ISIS, and He has His laughing plans for them.
Meanwhile, I have looked at the lives of the people I admire most and, with them, I have watched the mythology of Genesis ride off into the sunset. I have looked temptation in the eye, and sometimes she has said, “No!”
I know these people, the little houses they have built against the darkness, the good they have given. The possibilities they have seen, and the mistakes they have celebrated. Unafraid in the certain tinge of the Creator’s touch.
These latter-day saints find themselves welcome, then as now, among some beer-loving Christians of the old school. We have seen the light, all of us. We know the Way. We understand, don’t we, the Truth, sitting here among the smoke, with Life and knowledge affirmed, and no requirement whatsoever for certainty.
A mangled world waits for little inklings of what it all might mean.
John Brown is the author of People of Flint Hills: Bluestem Pasture Portraits and Wichita State Baseball Comes Back.