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The Love of God in the Life of St. Patrick

by Marybeth Davis Baggett 

Most religious celebrations and feast days for saints of the church garner little attention outside ecclesiastical circles. St. Patrick’s Day is a notable exception, especially throughout America. Across the country parades and festivities are held to commemorate all things Irish. It’s a delightful holiday in many ways, with ubiquitous shamrocks and obligatory green clothing or accessories and Shamrock shakes galore. Because the church traditionally lifts the Lenten restrictions on alcohol for this celebration, the revelry of St. Patrick’s Day is often marked with more than a little inebriation. Regardless of the specific form of the celebration, rarely invoked are the particulars of the man for whom the day is named. Just who is this Patrick, patron saint of Ireland? Why commemorate his life at all?

The most obvious and the official answer is that we celebrate Patrick’s life because of the key role he played in turning the Irish away from paganism and toward Christianity. This was no mean feat. In Philip Freeman’s helpful biography of Patrick, he tells of the entrenched cultural powers—kings, druids, slaveholders—that Patrick would need to engage to carry out his sixth century mission’s work. The political structures, religious customs, and social practices of Ireland at the start of Patrick’s ministry were all overtly and fiercely anti-Christian. Patrick’s navigation of those dynamics is certainly noteworthy; his overwhelming success in subverting them is nothing short of miraculous. Attempts to capture the astonishing outcomes of Patrick’s work have elevated the man himself to something of a spiritual superhero, complete with his own folklore and fantastical stories.

Sensationalistic tales such as his banishment of snakes from the island and his staff that took root and grew into a tree give the saint an air of mystery and the heroic. The rapidity and breadth of Christianity’s growth across the island is difficult to explain without appeal to the supernatural, and these fabricated stories were probably intended to capture something of the divine power that clearly animated and directed his missions work. But the legends might just as easily distract us from understanding Patrick as the model for Christian faithfulness he provides. True, Patrick was instrumental in radically transforming the landscape of a cruel and dehumanizing culture. Yes, he is rightly recognized as a luminary of the Christian faith. But his life also serves as an example and encouragement for all Christians seeking to live out their faith. What we find in Patrick’s own words testify that the source of this work is the life of Christ available to all Christians. The inspiration of Patrick’s life is not to be found in its outsized results but in its steady faithfulness.

To be sure, the circumstances of Patrick’s life were extraordinary. He was born in fifth-century Britain, the privileged son of a Roman official. During his teenage years, he was kidnapped by Irish mercenaries and forced into slavery in Ireland for six years. After an escape from captivity prompted by an angelic vision, he returned home and devoted himself to the study of scriptures and preparation for ministry of some kind. During his years as a slave, he had become deeply aware of God’s call on his life and of his need for a savior. He later attributed his spiritual growth in this time to his terrible conditions: only when all was stripped away did he realize his complete dependence on God. His physical slavery counterintuitively brought him spiritual freedom. This transformational experience affected him so deeply that when he felt led to return to Ireland, the land and people responsible for his greatest torment, he abandoned himself wholly to that calling. Not only did he return to share the life-giving gospel message with the hardened and violent people of Ireland; he came to love them, even risking his life and reputation for their sake.

This love motivated his letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, a British tribal ruler. This letter jeopardized Patrick’s standing in the church and cost him no small amount of anxiety and energy; nevertheless, his commitment to the Irish people and to the gospel overrode those personal concerns. He wrote his note in response to a raid into Ireland by British soldiers who killed and kidnapped a group of Patrick’s newly baptized converts on their way home from the baptism. Sending this missive put Patrick in danger because it violated long-standing church protocol that leaders should not meddle in the congregations of other church leaders. And Patrick’s letter did more than meddle. It condemned not only the actions of the soldiers but the soldiers themselves, appealing to scripture to justify the judgments he rendered.

God’s redemption of his brutal circumstances constituted a crucible that formed his understanding of God alone as good, as the lone source of any real value, and as the one whose calling on our lives confers on us our true purpose.

Patrick’s righteous indignation and rage at the soldiers’ actions permeate the letter, but undergirding that wrath is a devotion to God and commitment to his people. Britons thought very little of the Irish, seeing them as less than human and suited only for slavery. Patrick’s writing proclaims again and again that God cares for them. Patrick upends the British assumptions by describing the Irish as his brothers and sisters, and even more by extending that relationship to the soldiers themselves, who publically pronounced themselves Christian. Patrick puts that presumption to the test by challenging them to release those they had enslaved. He also called on other fellow Christians to cut off fellowship with them until they demonstrated their faith through their actions.

For Patrick, faith and works go hand in hand. This is demonstrated by his Confession, a follow-up to his earlier epistle that appears to be a response to challenges to his leadership that stemmed from his rebuke of Coroticus. In this recount of his testimony, what emerges is a picture of a man who submitted himself fully to God’s call on his life. What is most remarkable about this account is the way it depicts how receiving God’s love leads to serving others. The mercy God showed Patrick in his early years as a slave stirred in him gratitude and a desire to share that blessing with others. The love he offered the Irish, despite their responsibility for his kidnapping and enslavement, was an overflow of the love God bestowed on him.

Despite the time and space that divide us, the Patrick of these letters has much to teach us. He displayed remarkable courage in confronting wrongdoing, but not of his own strength. Forged in the fire of oppression was his abiding conviction about God’s love and its radical and often counterintuitive demands. The debasement of slavery and dehumanization he’d endured had stripped away all pretenses of his superiority, making him acutely aware of his desperate need for God for power and productiveness, for trust and tenacity. God’s redemption of his brutal circumstances constituted a crucible that formed his understanding of God alone as good, as the lone source of any real value, and as the one whose calling on our lives confers on us our true purpose.

Near the end of his letter, Patrick wrote these poignant words we would do well to take to heart:

“My final prayer is that all of you who believe in God and respect him—whoever you may be who read this letter that Patrick the unlearned sinner wrote from Ireland—that none of you will ever say that I in my ignorance did anything for God. You must understand—because it is the truth—that it was all the gift of God.”

Image: “Detail of St Patrick with a shamrock in a stained glass window at the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows at Navy Pier in Chicago.” by T. Zajdowicz. CC License. 

Ash Wednesday and Existential Longing in The Moviegoer

By Marybeth Davis Baggett 

Binx Bolling, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer, has settled for an ordinary life. Foregoing his previous intent to study law or medicine or engage in scientific research, he no longer desires to do “something great.” Instead, Binx prides himself on having given up “grand ambitions” and “the old longings” and now “sell[s] stocks and bonds and mutual funds; quit[s] work at five o’clock like everyone else” and dreams of “having a girl and perhaps one day settling down.”

And so Binx partakes in the ritual of the everyday. He lives in the suburbs rather than amid the excitement of New Orleans whose “old world atmosphere” incites within him feelings he cannot control. Instead, he prefers predictability: living as a model citizen and perfect tenant, armed with the paraphernalia of modern life by which he circumscribes his identity. Binx’s longing for normalcy and stability is unsurprising given that his life has been marked by tragedy—with a brother dying from pneumonia and another from an accident, losing his father at a young age, and being wounded himself while fighting in the Korean War.

The ashes—while an external sign—function on a level not possible for Binx’s material-bound rituals. In reaching back through history to the origin of humanity itself—touching on a multiplicity of biblical stories along the way—these ashes bind us, to each other, to our creator, and to our redeemer.
Determined to stave off yet more devastating losses, Binx fills his wallet full of “identity cards, library cards, credit cards” and stuffs his lockbox with “his birth certificate, college diploma, honorable discharge, G.I. insurance, a few stock certificates,” and the deed to land inherited from his father. Consumerism drives his life, as he purchases popular products of the day, derives guidance from advice columns, and even models his relationships on movie plots.

Yet, try as he might to reduce himself to a cog in the machine, Binx remains unalterably human, with an innate hunger for significance, meaning, and purpose. To satisfy this hunger, he adopts the ceremonies of his thoroughly secularized culture—the moviegoing of the novel’s title being the most prominent. The routines of mid-twentieth-century America give him forms by which to understand his life, and he dignifies those routines with official titles like “certification,” “repetition,” and “rotation.” An evening radio program This I Believe, he tells readers, serves as his “compline,” referring to the traditional night prayer that completes the Church’s work that day.

But Percy’s novel shows just how dissatisfying these counterfeit, superficial, secularized rituals are, how little they are able to sustain a meaningful existence. The story’s events transpire in the days leading up to Mardi Gras, with parties and floats and general raucousness planned on the periphery of Binx’s central concerns. He is approaching his thirtieth birthday, and his aunt—the principal authority figure—is pressuring him about his future plans. He has none, and worse, though ill-equipped, he has been charged with caring for his depression-riddled step-cousin Kate. All he offers, all he can offer, is desacralized sex and a relationship mimicking the interaction between a director and his actress.

Even Binx himself recognizes the insubstantial nature of such a foundation on which to build a life, on which to found a marriage: “Flesh poor flesh failed us. The burden was too great and flesh poor flesh, neither hallowed by sacrament nor despised by spirit [. . .]—flesh poor flesh now at this moment summoned all at once to be all and everything, end all and be all, the last and only hope—quails and fails.”

The spiritual malaise of Binx and Kate, which parallels the spiritual malaise of the world they inhabit, is underscored by contrast with the onset of Lent, Ash Wednesday being the culmination of the novel’s events.

The novel’s most admirable figure, Binx’s terminally ill younger brother Lonnie, is a devout Catholic, and his childlike faith combines with wisdom beyond his few years to squelch any sympathy the readers might be tempted to harbor for Binx’s self-imposed existential despair. In the midst of his debilitating illness, Lonnie’s concerns are for the state of his soul, confessing feelings of pleasure over his brother Duval’s death, and for the state of Binx’s soul, praying for him when he takes communion.

It is Lonnie whose sufferings point beyond himself to Christ; it is Lonnie who revels in the life he is offered, perhaps out of knowing its limits. And it is Lonnie of whom we think when Binx and Kate watch a parishioner enter church to receive his ceremonial ashes.

Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent, the period leading up to Easter which calls Christians to spiritual preparation for the day marking the lynchpin of our faith—the resurrection of Christ. On this day, services and ritual highlight two themes: human mortality and sinfulness. Ministers mark worshipers’ heads with ash as a sign of grief for the human condition and repentance for our own participation in the sins of mankind.

The ashes—while an external sign—function on a level not possible for Binx’s material-bound rituals. In reaching back through history to the origin of humanity itself—touching on a multiplicity of biblical stories along the way—these ashes bind us, to each other, to our creator, and to our redeemer. They tell us who we are, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” and what we should do with that knowledge, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Binx’s rituals, on the other hand, fail to answer these big questions, or if they attempt to do so, the answers themselves fail. These citizenly duties—purchasing his auto tag, heeding public service announcements, contributing to the economy—merely situate him within his society. They provide a guidebook for making his way through the social maze. These rules and roles offer him little exploration of the human condition, more expansively construed.

For man is both more and less than Binx envisions him. Man is not merely the physical creature Binx reduces him to, nor is he the epitome of reality. The ritual of Ash Wednesday corrects both misconstruals, pointing to our creator God as the author of our existence, the source of our identity, the framer of our purpose, and the vehicle of our redemption.

Photo: “Cinema at the Barracks” by Andreass. CC License. 

Attending to the Least of These in the Age of Trump

 

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally posted at Christ and Pop Culture

by Marybeth Davis Baggett

“Even if you have this baby, I’m not going to love you.”

Nearly twenty-four years later, despite my having faced and overcome many challenges since that time and finally feeling secure in God’s faithfulness and his plan for me, memory of these words can still easily unsettle me. The cold indifference with which they were spoken, how they foretold the lonely and grueling road ahead, the grievous recognition that I had cast my pearls before this swine who was content to leave them in the mud—all of these hard truths surface in this short statement.

I was twenty, living recklessly and trying desperately to make up for what my childhood had lacked—some affirmation that I was important, a little appreciation for my unique gifts and talents, even just a bit of recognition that I existed.

It’s natural to feel invisible in dysfunctional environments like the one in which I grew up.

So on the precipice of adulthood, quite unconsciously I’m sure, I was determined to get what I had been denied: self-actualization, consideration, admiration. But when you have no internal gauge for authenticity in these matters, anything bearing a superficial resemblance will do, even the paltriest of substitutes—like the attentions of my manager at the restaurant where I worked.

Although it’s difficult now for me to stand in the shoes of that fragile girl, I do remember how flattering it was to garner the interest of someone with a modicum of authority in a position of respectability. In retrospect his flirting sickens me, knowing the self-centered callousness behind it, but at the time it thrilled me to think that I might be special enough to merit his devotion, or at least what I mistook for devotion.

The ironic but simple truth is that those growing up without having their most basic emotional needs met will often debase themselves in their desperate attempts to meet them. So it was with me.

Another simple truth is that many will use their power to exploit these vulnerabilities. This dynamic has been on full display in recent weeks with the latest scandal in Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. The most visceral reactions have been directed toward the leaked audio, and I have to admit, listening to Trump’s boasts gives me vivid flashbacks to the early days of my unmarried pregnancy.

To hear a rich and famous man speak with such casual pride on the license his power gives him to have his way with women—married or not—sparks shame deep within me. Shame because I know he’s right.

My story attests to this reality. Trump’s voice on that tape brings me face to face with the fact that the crisis point of my life, even the conception of my precious son, could so heartlessly be reduced to an emotionally stunted adolescent talking point.

What has been equally troubling is the political aftermath of the Trump tape, the way it has rallied his defenders and accusers alike. His advocates try threading the needle to denounce Trump’s past while embracing his future (Supreme Court in the balance, after all); others emphasize that these were words not deeds (though that’s become a vexed question) and establish a hierarchy of depravity with Trump on the acceptable side of the line. Still more adduce the philandering of Bill Clinton and Hillary’s enabling diatribes against his accusers.
Grievously silent have been Christian voices calling on men and women alike to reject societal and legal allowances to exert illegitimate control over another.

Trump’s critics ostensibly inhabit the moral high ground. They rightly call Trump out for degrading women; they recognize the hostility and abuse of power. While some detractors, such as Beth Moore, predicate their critique on Christian conviction for the dignity and worth of all people and a concern for the vulnerable, others have leveraged their criticism to score political points. Because the tape discloses repulsive statements and attitudes about women, some seize the opportunity to offer Clinton’s platform as a corrective: complete with expansion of abortion access and an unseemly and sanguine acceptance of the practice as normative.

Michelle Obama’s moving speech delivered last week powerfully embodies the attractiveness of embracing a platform like this, one that is supposed to empower women. As many have reported, in that poignant speech Obama articulates the fear countless women have that they matter only as sexual objects and declares—with justification—that Trump’s nomination by a major political party has breathed new life into those fears, even inflamed them.

I hear her words and watch her passion, and they resonate, but I can join in Obama’s refrain for only so long. Her righteous indignation rings hollow in light of the suffocating internal and external pressure I felt to abort my child—pregnant, scared, and little-more-than-child myself.

The hideous refrain, “Even if you have this baby, I’m not going to love you,” echoes loudly in my ears these days.

This cruel declaration invokes my longing to be known and loved, reminding me how that deepest of human needs was wielded as a weapon. It crystallizes for me the enormous power men have when abortion becomes quotidian, effectively disempowering the women it purports to protect.

“My body, my choice” ultimately entailed that the child I was carrying was fully my responsibility. In the moment of this distancing and dispassionate declaration, I knew that—with conscience intact—my son’s father intended to leave me to bear the consequences alone.

This is the hard truth of our age. A people who pride themselves on “equality for all” has accepted unchecked power as a matter of course—wrongful dominion of men over women, of women over babies. A code of law crafted to defend the defenseless, in reality sacrifices the weakest of us all. And we turn a blind eye to exploited women who refuse the moral calculation of abortion that offers escape through passing on one’s victimhood to another.

Even now, those speaking loudest about the Trump tapes seem to overlook the exploited. They excuse, forgive, and change the subject. Or they condemn, scheme, and flaunt their moral superiority. Few have acknowledged the individual lives at stake. Grievously silent have been Christian voices calling on men and women alike to reject societal and legal allowances to exert illegitimate control over another.

For someone like me, the casualty of another’s entitlement, this silence is deafening.

God is good, and in recounting my experience, I don’t mean to imply that this desolate chapter is the end of my story. I have been blessed beyond measure, and God has indeed shown in and through me his delight in making beauty from ashes. I am no longer that abandoned, desperately needy new mother unprepared for what lay ahead. I am amazed, humbled, and overwhelmed by how far God has brought me, how he redeemed this turning point by transforming me and making me wiser and stronger.

Over the past week, with the two partisan camps warring over Trump’s latest scandal, I can’t help but think of my former self, ill-equipped for the crisis she faced. She would be able to find no refuge in either faction. And I can’t help but look at my female students at the university where I teach and wonder if any of them wrestle with the same inner and outer demons I faced at their age.

It’s to and for them I speak now. I want desperately for them to know that—no matter who has failed them, no matter what they have done, no matter who speaks lies to and about them—they are loved abundantly. They are created for a purpose they will find only in their Maker; they are unique and wonderful and valuable beyond measure. Exploitation of them is an offense to the God who formed us all.

And to men who might be listening in, mistreatment of women degrades you as well. To quote James Baldwin, “It is a terrible, an inexorable law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own.” You are called to something higher, to reject the pervasive cultural message that permits casual objectification and consumption of another.

A corollary with that truth is this one: good and right will prevail; evil begets evil and, left unredeemed, will never participate in good. While we live in a world fraught with sin and temptation, counterfeit satisfactions and fear will lure us to abandon God’s wisdom for our own, to rationalize our rejection of his law, and to enact justice injudiciously. Through abortion and more, our culture offers encouragement and approval for such blameworthy self-reliance. Only a resolute trust in God’s abiding faithfulness delivers us from evil, both inward and outward. Such is the way of hope.

Hope rejects voices that justify, minimize, or turn away from abuses of power. Even still, hope recognizes that abuse of power is not a zero-sum game and that such abuse, if left unchecked by grace, can quickly turn victim into perpetrator, all in the name of empowerment. Faustian bargains net no profit, no matter whose dignity is used as collateral.

Hope speaks truth about injustice, holds the wicked to account, but resists the creed that all’s fair play for the wronged. Hope, instead, knows you can entrust yourself to the one who judges justly. Through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, hope proves that it need neither compromise nor collude with corruption to effect victory.

Do not be fooled by rhetoric that claims accumulation of power is our purpose, no matter the source of those claims. Embrace instead Christ’s heart for the “least of these,” even if you find yourself in that category.

Our fallen state may be homo incurvatus in se, humanity curved in on itself, but hope releases us from bondage to self-gratification and self-centeredness. Through hope, we can and should live differently. My life and the life of my son testify to this possibility and to this hope.

Image: “Good Samaritan”  by David Teniers the Younger. Wiki Commons. 

Two Sides to Every Story? How Triviality Obscures the Truth of Domestic Abuse

Editor’s Note: In this slight departure from our standard subject matter, we explore some of the implications of justice and charity in cases of domestic abuse, specifically in light of recent statements by a notable Christian leader. The importance and gravity of this issue merit its coverage here at Moral Apologetics.

By Marybeth Baggett 

Imagine the following: A woman lives for years in a volatile situation, never knowing when a word or circumstance will enrage her husband causing him to unleash emotional or physical pain on her. She tries desperately to manage the environment, to forestall these chaotic and traumatic outbursts—for her own and her children’s sake.

This woman’s home life is toxic; it has strangled her spirit, and what little outside support she has dwindles as the situation worsens. She accepts the blame assigned by her husband, she sees hope for change in small gestures of remorse, and day by day she becomes increasingly anxious, depressed, and demoralized.

Suppose this woman seeks counseling for her anxiety and depression. In this process, she realizes, first, that her situation is not normal and, second, that she is not to blame for the emotional and physical violence perpetrated on her. After laboring so long under the impression that she and her husband were equal partners in creating their destructive home environment, she embraces the truth that her husband has wielded unchecked and unjust power over her. Control, not love, animates their relationship.

Although the journey toward healing and freedom ahead of her is long and difficult, she has taken the first step by appropriating this truth.

Women like this, unfortunately, are all too common, even within the church. Controllers like this exist, too; yes, even within the church. In fact, the church—with its insistence on marital fidelity, its teachings of mercy and sacrifice—often provides unwitting cover for perpetrators like the husband of the woman above. Research shows that Christian women are more prone to stay longer in an abusive environment and to endure far worse abuse than their non-Christian counterparts. Unfortunately, pastors are often ill-informed about, and ill-equipped to deal with, the wicked realities of domestic abuse.

Take, for example, Franklin Graham’s recent Facebook post appealing to Christians to withhold judgment and, instead, pray for Saeed Abedini and his wife Naghmeh. Abedini, as many know, is the recently released American pastor who was jailed in Iran for close to four years, charged with proselytizing and undermining Iranian national security.

After working tirelessly to publicize her husband’s wrongful imprisonment and to pressure Washington to obtain his release, Naghmeh halted her advocacy in November 2015, telling supporters that she had endured “physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse” from her husband and didn’t have the resources to soldier on any longer under such circumstances.

During Saeed’s imprisonment Franklin Graham rallied many Christians around his cause. Upon Saeed’s return to America last month, Graham welcomed him to the Billy Graham Training Center for rest and recuperation. While this outcome was the one so many prayed for and sought for so long, Naghmeh’s claims of abuse hung oppressively over any celebration, complicated further by her filing for legal separation on the day Saeed returned to their hometown in Idaho.

And so through his Facebook post Graham attempted a hopeful framework for responding to the murky affair. Wishing to remain impartial, he spoke of the marital troubles facing the Abedinis, called for prayer to ward off Satan’s continued attacks on their family, and reminded readers that “[o]ther than God, no one knows the details and the truth of what has happened between Saeed and Naghmeh except them.”

Although Franklin Graham is not the Abedini family’s personal pastor, as head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and leader of Samaritan’s Purse relief organization, he wields considerable societal influence. How he handles this situation matters beyond the case of this particular family; it speaks to the broader Christian community’s understanding of the realities of domestic abuse. And many will follow the example he sets here.

Graham’s statement seems designed, understandably, to keep rumors in check and encourage Christians to think redemptively on this matter. The charges Naghmeh levied are weighty; no one wants a false claim to shatter an innocent man’s life, especially a man who has endured so much and been a model of Christian faithfulness for so many. And yet Graham’s admonition, evenhanded as it tried to be, reveals a profound naivety about domestic abuse, a naivety that is sadly all too prevalent in the church.

Consider the seeming truism that punctuates Graham’s appeal: “there are at least two sides to every story.” When applied to the situation of the woman described at the outset of this piece, this claim is revealed as nonsense. A man who would inflict physical and emotional violence on his wife probably does have a perspective to share, but what of it? An opportunity to present his “side of the story” would only make way for more manipulation and deceit, this time drawing allies to his side and increasing the pressure on his wife to capitulate.

“There are at least two sides to every story” is valid only in a world governed by fair play, insistent on honesty, and committed to honoring the dignity of others. “There are at least two sides to every story” works for run-of-the-mill marital challenges: how to communicate better, getting finances straight, agreeing on child-rearing techniques. “There are at least two sides to every story,” only when those stories are populated by honorable people behaving honorably.

Conversely, “there are at least two sides to every story” is a monstrous retort to the situation described above. The world of that woman’s oppression is defined by a pattern of unrepentant sin, controlled by someone who has only his own interests in mind. For this woman’s sake and the sake of the many women like her, Graham’s platitude must be rejected and replaced by more sensitive and informed replies.[1]

“There are at least two sides to every story” is an offense to any victim speaking the truth about her mistreatment; it’s an offense to our God who cares about the downtrodden. Rather than bringing light and hope to an emotionally-fraught situation, trotting out this banal expression at such a crucial moment enables actual and would-be perpetrators and further disadvantages victims. Redemption cannot bypass truth.

If there are two sides to every story, in any substantive sense worth emphasizing, is the suggestion that a rape victim has her story and her rapist his own? A sexually molested child his story and the pedophile her own? Holocaust survivors their story and their cruel captors their own? ISIS victims their stories, the terrorists their own? Martin Luther King, Jr. in a Birmingham jail his story, his pious segregationist critics their own? Such claims are patently misguided: either trivially true or wickedly false. In situations terribly warped and twisted by sin, unspeakably deformed by darkness and inhumanity, the worst casualty of the polite words of morally tone-deaf evenhandedness is often the sober truth.

I don’t know that Naghmeh’s situation falls into that category. Nor does Franklin Graham know that it doesn’t.

 

Notes:

[1] Several Christian institutions and professionals offer training and guidance for pastors on domestic abuse, including the following (along with links to their resources): Lifeway, Focus on the Family, Ministry Matters, and Leslie Vernick.

 

Image: “Broken Glass” by Holger. CC License. 

His Truth Is Marching On: Selma’s Clarion Call

Editor’s note: This article was originally published at Christ and Pop Culture. 

By Marybeth Davis Baggett 

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

There’s a poignant scene towards the close of Ava DuVernay’s new film Selma, a scene made all the more compelling by its prescience. John Doar, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, warns Martin Luther King of credible threats against his life that await him in Montgomery, the destination of the Selma march protesting barriers to African American voter registration.

Doar implores King to drive—rather than walk—into the capital and to nix the planned speech, to minimize his exposure and prevent any possible harm. “Don’t you want to protect yourself?” Doar asks. King’s response here is telling, as it speaks of his convictions and highlights the worldview animating the film and, more importantly, the nonviolent resistance movement whose story it portrays.

I’m no different than anyone else. I want to live long and be happy, but I’ll not be focusing on what I want today. I’m focused on what God wants. We’re here for a reason, through many, many storms. But today the sun is shining, and I’m about to stand in its warmth alongside a lot of freedom-loving people who worked hard to get us here. I may not be here for all the sunny days to come, but as long as there’s light ahead for them, it’s worth it to me.

The specific threats of violence against King echo the egregious wrongs perpetrated throughout the film—the disenfranchisement of black citizens, the murders of innocent children and protesters, the brutality of local and state police against unarmed marchers. And yet the activists refused to be intimidated. “We go again,” Dr. King says after so-called Bloody Sunday—the brutal attacks by police and posse alike on the protesters during their first attempted march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The injustice on display in Selma is heart-wrenching. Few will leave the theater dry-eyed after witnessing the powerful using their positions and privilege, their weapons and words, to dehumanize others. Again and again, the protesters are at the receiving end of such abuse. They suffer indignity after indignity in exercising basic human rights—registering to vote, checking in to a hotel, protesting peacefully.
This process—resisting the impulse to respond to injustice in kind, to daily wait on the Lord to set wrongs right, to proclaim truth without fear, to stand in solidarity with the downtrodden—is hard. It is in fact beyond hard; it is impossible in our own strength.

The scenes projected on the screen provoke outrage and disgust. And yet, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by King rejected retaliation in kind, however tantalizing the temptation. After one particularly humiliating and damaging attack, several protesters plan to round up some guns, only to be reminded that the police and government force will always be much greater than theirs. “We have to win another way,” SCLC leader Andrew Young counsels.

Resisting the logic of lex talionis—an eye for an eye—seems counterintuive and countercultural at best, foolhardy at worst. Achieving victory by turning the other cheek seems impossible. Conceived in secular terms, victory over subjugation requires defeating one’s foes by force—be it legal, corporal, psychological, economic. But justice in Selma goes well beyond tactics; it points to a radical conception of reality itself.

Justice in the minds of the Selma freedom-fighters is a metaphysical fact, a real state of affairs promised and being worked out by a good God who is setting the world aright at the incalculable cost of his own son. And driven by their Christian convictions, the SCLC embraces the privilege and responsibility of participating in this process, of co-suffering with Christ.

While the scenes of outrageous abuse will infuriate viewers, the resolve of the protesters not to multiply evil through retaliation will inspire. What Marilyn Adams writes in a different context is attested to by the protesters’ courageous example: “To return horror for horror does not erase but doubles the individual’s participation in horrors—first as victim, then as the one whose injury occasions another’s prima facie ruin.”

Without granting its theological foundations, King’s campaign was worse than foolish. Knowingly placing himself at the mercy of those who would oppose with appalling force the truths he preached took courage, courage borne from the conviction that justice is the natural bent of the universe. The values of the kingdom of God turn those of this world on their head.

As Selma testifies, King understood that his real enemies weren’t government officials assassinating his character, racists and segregationists who thought themselves superior, nor even the man who would eventually kill him. No, he fought instead “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). And he knew that in the face of an all-powerful and all-loving God, these spiritual forces of darkness and entrenched systemic evils would not and could not stand.

Selma gives us a glimpse into how this redemption works in our own lives here and now; it’s terrifying, convicting, and inspiring all at once. This process—resisting the impulse to respond to injustice in kind, to daily wait on the Lord to set wrongs right, to proclaim truth without fear, to stand in solidarity with the downtrodden—is hard. It is in fact beyond hard; it is impossible in our own strength. In our personal lives we all face indignities, abuses, and wrongs—all of which Selma magnifies in horrifying detail. We can thus sympathize with King’s weariness, his call for support, his pleas for divine intervention, his temptation to give in and give up.

In the crucible of this maelstrom, we see, too, the resurrection of hope, the power of community, the hardiness of righteousness, an enactment of the gospel. We see the church at work, Christ’s body setting the world to rights little by little, through the most powerful weapons there are, and the only truly efficacious ones—faith, hope, and love.

The saga of Selma echoes its clarion call to Christ’s body today to be faithful heralds of truth and justice, to live and labor in the hope of what we still can’t see except in fleeting glimpses and furtive glances. It is a glorious and sober reminder that if Christ be raised we have seen manifest the first-fruits of a coming victory so resounding, and a glory so amazing, that it will dwarf and eclipse any and all of this world’s sufferings. Like Dr. King, let this blessed assurance inspire us to proclaim truth with boldness, battle injustice with hope, and daily carry our cross with courage.

Irenaeus of Lyons: A Guide for Staying the Course

By Marybeth Davis Baggett

Early Christian thinkers carved out the contours of the faith—formulating doctrine, countering heresy, navigating differences between Eastern and Western traditions. For this, the church will ever be in their debt, owing much to their courage of conviction, fortitude of character, clarity of mind, and passion for truth. Irenaeus of Lyons, whose feast day is today, is one such figure.

Known as the “first great Catholic theologian,” Irenaeus traced his spiritual lineage directly back to the Apostle John, through Polycarp of Smyrna, under whose tutelage he sat as a child. This heritage uniquely poised Irenaeus for combatting the Gnosticism of his day, in that he could draw from both scripture and apostolic authority to delineate the essentials of the Christian faith. Irenaeus’ seminal work in this vein is Against Heresies, a masterful text consisting of five books that articulate Christianity’s basic doctrines, a proto-Mere Christianity if you will.

For two millennia the creed has been an anchor keeping us moored to the word and the Word
Gnosticism, the predominant heresy of the 2nd century church, promoted dualism, a doctrine wherein the material world was created and governed by the demiurge—a lesser creative being whom the Gnostics equated with Yahweh of the Old Testament—and Christ, as a representative from the spirit world governed by the supreme deity, offers human beings secret knowledge (gnosis) that makes possible man’s redemption. Contra Christian teaching, the Gnostics looked less to salvation from sin than to deliverance from the ignorance of which sin is a consequence. Against the Gnostics’ claim of exclusive knowledge about spiritual matters, Irenaeus proclaimed the universal availability of the gospel message; the good news is for all, and this good news runs throughout the whole of God’s special revelation.

In addition to Against Heresies, only one other of Irenaeus’ writings survives: The Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, a short work addressed to his friend Marcianus which serves as a primer to and an apologetic for the baptismal confession and Rule of Faith, forerunners to the Apostles’ Creed. The essay also establishes an important link between the Old Testament (OT) and the work of Christ, enumerating the many OT prophecies fulfilled by Christ and offering a holistic interpretation of both the Old and soon-to-be-established New Testament. For Irenaeus, God’s redemptive plan governs the entirety of scripture, a dominant theme in both of his extant works.

As J. Armitage Robinson has noted, “The wonder of Irenaeus is the largeness of his outlook. No theologian had arisen since St. Paul and St. John who had grasped so much of the purpose of God for His world.” In explaining and defending the Apostolic message, Irenaeus traces God’s salvific purpose through scripture—revealing the organic connections between Christianity and its Jewish heritage, the fall of Adam and the resurrection of Jesus, the giving of the Law and the offer of grace, creation and the eschaton, along the way fitting key biblical figures within that story.

The aforementioned Rule of Faith, which functioned so centrally in The Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, affirms belief “in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all the things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who made known through the prophets the plan of salvation, and the coming, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future appearing from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise anew all flesh of the whole human race.”

A slightly different version, the Old Roman Creed, reads as follows:

I believe in God the Father almighty;
and in Christ Jesus His only Son, our Lord,
Who was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried,
on the third day rose again from the dead,
ascended to heaven,
sits at the right hand of the Father,
whence He will come to judge the living and the dead;
and in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Church,
the remission of sins,
the resurrection of the flesh
(the life everlasting).

For 2,000 years Christians have joined this refrain, week after week adding their voices, reaffirming its life-giving truths. For two millennia the creed has been an anchor keeping us moored to the word and the Word.

In this world of change and flux, and amidst the vicissitudes, variables, and vagaries of life, so invariant a creed has remained a constant, a stable shore at the edge of a sea’s worth of maelstroms featuring the howling winds and shifting sands of unsound doctrines. Such seems Irenaeus’ motivation for explaining and defending it so many years ago, as he admonishes Marcianus: “Wherefore it is needful for you and for all who care for their own salvation to make your course unswerving, firm and sure by means of faith, that you falter not, nor be retarded and detained in material desires, nor turn aside and wander from the right.”

Perhaps at such a time as this, in the hour in which we find ourselves, when the church feels under siege from multiple directions, various of its classical commitments disparaged and impugned by some, castigated as outdated and archaic by others, Irenaeus serves as a powerful reminder to walk in the way of righteousness, stand on the bedrock of orthodoxy, keeping our eyes on the Author and Finisher of our faith, focusing on what can draw us together as believers rather than on what so easily divides, and, most importantly of all, encouraging fidelity to Christ and faithfulness to His mission amidst the deafening din of a cacophony of voices as we serve the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Image: Irenaeus, earliestchristianity.wordpress.com

Basil of Caesarea: Faith Enacted

By Marybeth Davis Baggett

“[E]very man is divided against himself who does not make his life conform to his words.” – Basil the Great, Address on Greek Literature

Church history is replete with exemplars of the Christian faith, people whose lives—as much as their words—have provided later generations precepts by which we live and inspiration for doing so. Basil of Caesarea, whose feast day is today, is such a figure. His writings range from dogmatic to exegetical, from homiletical to liturgical, and their significance positioned him as one of the Three Holy Hierarchs of the Eastern Church.

But the beauty of Basil’s life emanates from its marriage of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. By any definition, the man was a saint. Living during the fourth century, a period marked by theological conflicts and growing tensions between the eastern and western branches of Christianity, Basil was committed to truth, unity, and service. As the contemporary church faces its own doctrinal conflicts and political pressures, we would do well to reflect on how a luminary like Basil remained faithful while navigating the treacherous spiritual waters of his day.

Basil’s father and mother were devout Christians. Both had come from families accustomed to martyrdom, and they ensured that their ten children were grounded in the church throughout their childhood. As he matured, Basil turned toward secular education, leaving his youthful faith behind him. Through his training in Constantinople and later in Athens, Basil became well-versed in rhetoric, grammar, philosophy, astronomy, geometry, and medicine. So well prepared in the education of the time was he that on returning home to Caesarea Basil was offered charge of the education of the youth there.

Faith is obedient action; obedient action in turn builds faith. Such is the lesson of Basil’s life.
But returning home also resurrected for Basil the memories of his religious upbringing and brought him to a turning point in which he surrendered his life to God in service for others. This turning point determined the shape of the rest of his life and made possible the rich legacy he left for the church today.

In explaining his conversion, Basil credited a renewed relationship with the Bishop of Caesarea and the ministry of his sister Macrina who had organized a religious community devoted to serving the poor. Through their examples, Basil learned the dynamic relationship between faith and practice, that each informs the other. This truth was reinforced by the scriptures he read as a means to understand better the heart of the gospel. There he saw that “a great means of reaching perfection was the selling of one’s goods, the sharing of them with the poor, the giving up of all care for this life, and the refusal to allow the soul to be turned by any sympathy towards things of earth” (Epistle 223, Against Eustathius of Sebasteia). Faith is obedient action; obedient action in turn builds faith. Such is the lesson of Basil’s life.

As his words testify, the bishop took literally Christ’s directions to the rich young ruler of Mark 10, that eternal, abundant life comes not merely through the law but through abnegation of one’s privilege, absolute submission to God and others: “One thing you lack,” [Jesus] said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” And so, following his sister’s lead and inspired by his travels throughout Egypt and Asia Minor, Basil founded a monastery in Cappadocia (modern-day central Turkey) and is known now as the father of eastern monasticism. Basil’s form of monasticism was an engaged one, as there, too, he transformed faith to practice—particularly as he developed in spiritual maturity.

Six years after his conversion, theological controversies and political challenges increased, and Basil took a more active role in the church, becoming ordained and participating in a number of highly public discussions and writing in defense of orthodoxy. He ascended to the bishopric of Caesarea in 370, and in this role, he became even more active resisting Arianism, tirelessly writing against it and rebuking the unorthodox face-to-face (including the Emperor Valens who was reportedly much annoyed with Basil’s indifference to his office and his opinions).

So firm in his convictions was Basil that, despite the many frays he entered, he remained unflappable—calmly, persistently, and confidently defending sound doctrine and, consequently, winning both arguments and people. The Catholic Encyclopedia, drawing on Gregory of Nazanzius’s description, offers him as a model for civil disagreement: “By years of tactful conduct, however, ‘blending his correction with consideration and his gentleness with firmness,’ he finally overcame most of his opponents.” Or, in the parlance of today, for Basil truth need not be sacrificed for love.

It seems that Basil could emerge from these contentious debates with his reputation as a servant unscathed because he did not envision those with whom he disagreed as enemies. Paul Schroeder, in overviewing Basil’s social vision, explains that his anthropology governed all his engagements with others—that we are social creatures who have obligations to one another and that living in proper relation with others is both virtuous and spiritually formative. This theologically robust social vision fully manifested itself in the Basiliad, the creation of which was one of Basil’s most notable achievements. An institution that embodied the Bishop’s philanthropic vision, at the Basiliad the poor and sick were housed and fed, orphans were cared for, and the unskilled were trained.

Reflection on Basil’s life and writings shows that this mission of justice was not at odds with his defense of orthodoxy but part and parcel of it. Truth, rightly understood, leads to love, rightly practiced. Basil reminds us of how deeply consistent and resonant the two in fact are. The matchless Christian life is one that seamlessly marries them.

Image: Icon of St. Basil the Great from the St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev

Pentecost Sunday and the Power and Presence of God

By Marybeth Davis Baggett

Today is Pentecost, the ecclesiastical festival commemorating the establishment of the church itself. On this fiftieth day after Jesus’ resurrection, the Holy Spirit descended on Christ’s disciples as they prayed in one accord in the Upper Room, thereby launching their ministry, a dynamic outreach that would burst the confines of Jerusalem and Judea and would spread the Good News throughout the world.

Ten days before the events recounted in Acts 2, before the disciples of Christ had watched Jesus ascend to heaven, they had asked him when the restoration of Israel would come. He was the promised Messiah, they knew, but what did his departure portend for a restored kingdom? Instead of an answer, they heard Christ’s promise of the Spirit. So they waited. They obeyed Jesus’ command, remaining together in Jerusalem.

At this time, many pilgrims were in the city to celebrate the Feast of Weeks, the Jewish holy day recognizing God’s giving Moses the Law at Mount Sinai. This feast is known as Shavuʿoth in Hebrew and Pentecost (fiftieth day, after Passover) in Greek. As the disciples gathered together, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, setting them aflame by the transforming presence and power of God. The imagery of wind and fire of Acts 2 echoes that of Exodus 19, chronicling God’s presence on the mountain Moses ascended (as Kent Dobson notes in his commentary for the NIV First-Century Study Bible).

As God made abode with Moses and the Israelites, so too he was with these disciples, and now would take up residence within them. Far from abandoning or forsaking them, or leaving them desolate, he planned to animate and inspire them, write his law on their hearts, and fulfill his promise to pour out his Spirit (Joel 2); in fact, he planned to anoint them for a work whose breadth and profundity they could have scarcely imagined, of which the kingdom of Israel was just the beginning.

The Holy Spirit empowered these unsophisticated Galileans to preach the Gospel message with power both to Jews living in Jerusalem and to those on pilgrimage for the holy day. Despite sharing the same Jewish faith and religious tradition, the onlookers hailed from a wide range of geographical locations including Mesopotamia, Asia, and Egypt and spoke a number of different languages. They were culturally diverse as well—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Cretans, and Arabians, and both ethnically Jewish and converts to the faith. Through the miraculous work of the Spirit, the Gospel message, relevant to all, was now heard by all, in their own native tongues.
God used the obedience of these disciples to begin reconciling the whole world to himself. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead was now at work within them, to effect nothing less than the complete restoration of his created order, a process still underway.

And that message, boldly proclaimed with divine unction, radically changed the lives of those who heard and heeded, responding to God’s gracious and glorious overture of love. Three thousand people, Acts 2 tells us, were baptized and welcomed into Christian fellowship that day, a fellowship depicted by Luke as nothing less than extraordinary.

In Glimpses of Grace Madeleine L’Engle describes the life of the early church in these terms: “[O]n that first Pentecost the Holy Spirit truly called the people together in understanding and forgiveness and utter, wondrous joy. The early Christians, then, were known by how they loved one another.” She continues by challenging the contemporary church to live in such unity: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could say that of us again? Not an exclusive love, shutting out the rest of the world, but a love so powerful, so brilliant, so aflame that it lights the entire planet — nay the entire universe!”

These early Christians held property in common, submitted themselves to one another, studied scripture and learned from the apostles, praised God, lived in gratitude and generosity. And their numbers continued to increase. God used their obedience to begin reconciling the whole world to himself. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead was now at work within them, to effect nothing less than the complete restoration of his created order, a process still underway.

For Pentecost not only reminds us of Mount Sinai by way of the Feast of Weeks; it also harkens back to the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11—except, where language divided those at Babel, it united those at Pentecost. While scripture contains many instances of the devastation wrought by human sin, few stories capture the imagination as fully as that of Babel. As the population grew after the flood, people settled in Shinar, later deciding to build a city with a tower “reach[ing] to the heavens,” motivated by a two-fold purpose: to “make a name for [them]selves” and to avoid being “scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Seeing their plans, God thwarted them, confusing their languages and dispersing them throughout the world, the very thing they hoped their building project would prevent.

Although the precise sin of the people is not named in Genesis 11, historical context suggests that pride was at its root. (Dobson says that “[t]owers in the Bible usually are associated with human arrogance,” pointing to Isaiah 2:12-17 and Ezekiel 26:4-9 as examples.) Fear, too, perhaps motivated them (as Brent A. Strawn explains); they may have craved self-protection, isolation, and stability—all of which would have come, they supposed, from a city. Even so, such self-protection came at the expense of obeying God’s command to Noah (and Adam and Eve before that) to “[b]e fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” Rather than submit to God, the people of Babel relied on themselves, cutting themselves off from others and fulfilling their own desires, not God’s will.

Pentecost reminds us that God does not call us to live in our own strength, in the comfortable confines of our own devising. Rather, we are altogether dependent on the only true Source of our strength and victory. God’s plans for healing, hope, and restoration are far grander than our narrow terrestrial dreams forged in the finite minds of mortal men. Ours is a calling much too high for us to achieve with the resources of our own meager devices. God’s Spirit is still available to take up habitation in our hearts, to flood us with waves of liquid love, transforming us to be like Christ, empowering us to obey God’s call, with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead.

 

Image: “Pentecost” by Jean II Restoust. Public Domain. 

In the Crucible of Life: “Good Country People” as Moral Apologetic

By Marybeth Davis Baggett

Flannery O’Connor’s literary works are unforgettable. Small in number but powerful in effect, her short stories bring to life bizarre characters who are often psychologically distorted and, as a result, relationally debilitated. There’s much to pity about the O’Connor protagonist—usually he or she is alienated from friends or family and has had some past traumatic experience with lingering physical or emotional damage. But any such pity is tempered by the story’s revelation that the character’s current difficulties are self-created and self-perpetuated. This brings us to the crux of any given O’Connor story, as each one culminates in a ruthless exposure of the main character’s pretenses, the false beliefs about themselves, the world, or others that they use to promote or protect themselves.

This confrontation with reality, O’Connor brings to her characters to free them from self-delusion and the unavoidable pain that comes from being misaligned with reality. O’Connor is not one to enable a character’s skewed take on the world. Thus, the shocking conclusions of O’Connor’s stories are not only the defining feature of her work; they are the impetus behind their creation. She seeks with her writing to get her readers’ attention, to reveal the truth to a contemporary world that doesn’t often see it. She explains as much in her essay, “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” collected in Mystery and Manners, a book worth the time of anyone interested in the humanities:

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

To this end, O’Connor places her characters into situations that try their convictions. The result is a reckoning, a testing of how well the character’s worldview matches up to reality. O’Connor shows readers that the success of a worldview in the crucible of life’s real challenges provides a key measure of how evidentially strong such a worldview is; this is philosophy in practice, philosophy through literature. The testing is often painful because it reveals (to the character and reader) the consequences of thinking against the grain of reality. Such is definitely the case in O’Connor’s devastating “Good Country People.” (If you’ve never read it, read it now; you won’t regret it! O’Connor’s stories are better experienced than explained.)

This memorable tale is populated with stubborn characters, clinging to their problematic understandings of reality in the face of compelling evidence of just how deeply wrong their convictions are. The story reveals the twistedness of human nature, our self-defeating selfishness, and our self-protecting worldview blinders. At its center is Joy Hopewell, a thirty-two year old still living at home, dependent on yet resentful of the support offered by her divorced mother. The relationship between the two is fraught with tension as Mrs. Hopewell treats her daughter as a child, and Joy—for all her education and presumed sophistication—remains emotionally impaired.

Much of Joy’s life is spent provoking her mother, from studying philosophy to legally changing her name to Hulga to over-exaggerating the noise made by her wooden leg when she walks. All of these activities are designed to highlight the bitterness of life that Joy feels her mother has refused to acknowledge. Mrs. Hopewell, for her part, in Pollyannaish fashion, coasts through her life, ignoring anything at odds with the superficiality she confuses and conflates with happiness. She explains away any of life’s challenges with meaningless generalities that offer no actual comfort: “Nothing is perfect,” “that is life!” and “other people have their opinions, too.” “Good,” a word central to the story’s title and repeated often in the text, seems to have little meaningful content for either mother or daughter. It is simply a label applied of convenience, somewhat manipulatively to coerce others and to project an impression of equanimity. The disparity between its use and the characters’ worldviews become clearer as the story progresses.

The “good country people” first mentioned in the story are the Freemans, the tenants hired out by Mrs. Hopewell to farm her land. Yet despite insisting the Freemans were a “godsend,” Mrs. Hopewell clearly dislikes the wife and mother, finding her gossip tiresome, her nosiness off-putting, and her obsession with the grotesque disturbing. Regardless, whether out of necessity or stubbornness, Mrs. Hopewell withstands these daily assaults on her patience, all the while projecting an agreeable façade.

For Joy, her mother’s “happy” façade is more than unsatisfactory. Joy has experienced much pain—losing her leg at ten in a freak hunting accident, encumbered by a heart condition that will most likely cost her life, friendless, and without romantic prospects. In the face of the pain she has experienced (and continues to experience), her mother’s denial of life’s difficulties is offensive. And Joy seeks to unsettle that denial; however, she does so by embracing the opposite error of her mother’s. Where her mother can acknowledge only a goodness-reduced-to-politeness, Joy espouses only darkness. She harasses her mother, launching inexplicable, inappropriate, and inordinate philosophical tirades at her benighted parent. To make up for her mother’s denial of life’s tragedies, Joy props herself up with outrage and angry derision, all of which is a willful decision on Joy’s part to overlook the blessings she has.

O’Connor endorses neither Joy nor her mother’s approach to life, yet it is Joy whose worldview is unmasked as faulty and self-destructive. Joy supposedly embraces moral anti-realism, predicated on her atheism. In her conversations with the traveling Bible Salesman, Manly Pointer, she mocks his professed belief in God and patronizes his requests for affirmation of her love. She believes she is educating this seemingly backward yokel in the harsh realities of this world: “‘We are all damned,’ she said, ‘but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there’s nothing to see. It’s a kind of salvation.’”

In all of this, O’Connor sets Joy up for a confrontation between her self-conception and the implications of her stated worldview. When she finds herself duped by one she thought beneath her, one she assumed held traditional moral values, she is left without shelter to hide behind. For the protection she had been relying on—a cynical condescension that claimed to reject absolutes—is revealed as a sham. What she claimed to believe is precisely what leaves her vulnerable in the barn loft, legless and exposed. For, ultimately, O’Connor seems to suggest, Joy has the luxury of claiming to believe in nothing only because of her deeper conviction that others who claim to believe in human dignity and who espouse values such as honesty and compassion will actually live by those convictions.

Absent such a context, her radical claims are domesticated and rendered toothless; rather than inhabiting the role of renegade and maverick, her stance would merely be garden variety, humdrum, and bland. As such, Joy’s nihilism, paradoxically enough, parasitically depends on abiding, even absolute moral realism. Joy can mock her mother’s niceties, for example, only because she never doubts her mother’s commitment to her. Joy is free to proclaim that she “is one of those people who see through to nothing” only because nothing actually rides on this proclamation. That is, nothing rides on it until she meets her moral anti-realist match.

By creating a real-world situation governed by the nihilism Joy professes and putting her at the mercy of one who lives according to the anti-realism Joy claims to believe, O’Connor deftly dismantles the hypocrisy of such an attitude. And the resulting shock leaves the character altered (one hopes for the better) and the reader schooled.

Photo: “Düsseldorf Shattered View” by Magnus. CC License. 

Kurt Vonnegut: Unlikely Apologist

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally posted at Christ and Pop Culture. 

By Marybeth Davis Baggett

The late Kurt Vonnegut inspires loyalty among his readers. He’s the kind of author whose fans devour book after book, reading one after another in rapid succession. Or at least I did. Back in 1997 a coworker recommended Vonnegut to me, specifically Slaughterhouse-Five. Unable to get my hands on that novel, I checked out Deadeye Dick. I was hooked. By the end of the year, I’d read at least ten Vonnegut novels, only whetting my appetite for more.

Vonnegut is often thought of as cynical, edgy, and distasteful, not the most inviting qualities. This reputation is based—I believe—on his role as social satirist and his liberal-leaning political stance. The Vonnegut I love, on the other hand, is found in his letter to an English class at Xavier High School, one of the most popular Letters of Note posts from last year. He’s charming and kind, concerned with the students’ flourishing, aware of the indignities of life (his aging and its effects), yet vanquishing them with humor and grace. Reading that letter reaffirms my enthusiasm for Vonnegut’s work.

At one time I felt a little timid about my affinity for Vonnegut. He was often conceived as tasteless, a charge getting its bite from a cursory reading of the author’s irreverent and iconoclastic titles. Satirists tip sacred cows, and Vonnegut’s no exception. His outspoken agnosticism further reinforced my timidity. Having flirted with both theism and atheism, Vonnegut was willing to commit to neither. He even claims that his first wife’s conversion to Christianity was a key factor in their divorce. Even so, Vonnegut retained interest in scripture and Christianity, with a particular fondness for Christ himself. Closing the letter to Xavier HS “God bless you all!” is, ironically enough, vintage Vonnegut. He also once claimed, tongue in cheek perhaps, his epitaph should read, “The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.”

Vonnegut’s words consistently dance with such delight, even when dealing with death and dearth—the firebombing of Dresden (Slaughterhouse-Five), apocalyptic nightmares (Cat’s CradleGalápagos), Nazi war crimes (Mother Night). Yet the most salient response he elicits from readers is laughter. The humor lacing Vonnegut’s letter to the high school class permeates all of his books. However heavy the subject matter, he never loses his light touch; however tragic, he retains the capacity to laugh. Vonnegut’s humor exposes man’s fears and limitations and invites his readers to reject human pretensions.

As he wraps up the opening chapter to Slaughterhouse-Five, for example, he turns the story of Sodom and Gomorrah on its head, using it as a parallel to the destruction of the Nazi-occupied city of Dresden and challenging us to reconsider the source and nature of evil and our obligations to one another:

Those were vile people in both cities, as is well known. The world was better off without them. And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes.

Then, poignantly: “I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.” The tension between loss and life, pain and joy, is felt in every line of this and many other of his books. Mingled among these jokes and laments are moving passages honoring human beings. In the aftermath of Dresden’s firebombing, the main character rests in a horse-drawn wagon, appreciating the sun, rest, and full belly he’d been denied while a POW. At this moment, Vonnegut introduces two German obstetricians who care for the horse Billy and his comrades have failed to feed or groom properly. Picturesque scenes like this one recur in Vonnegut’s work, encouraging readers to reject easy cynicism amidst pain and tragedy.

Vonnegut is a paradox like that—a likeable curmudgeon, a pessimistic optimist, an earnest humorist. And it’s his honesty about the paradoxes of life that draws me back to him again and again. It’s an honesty that, despite Vonnegut’s inability to submit personally to the gospel message, brilliantly proclaims its truth. As Christian enthusiasts of popular culture realize, evidence for the truth of the gospel can appear in the unlikeliest of places. In Vonnegut recognition of fundamental gospel truth abounds, reinforcing and renewing for me the wisdom of John 1:1, that in the beginning was the Word, that the logos of Christ underpins reality and speaks to us all. I no longer hide my fondness for Vonnegut and his work; I embrace it. I have come to realize that reading Vonnegut enlivens my understanding and practice of Christianity.

For this reason, I see in Vonnegut a depiction of the world as it is—filled with sorrow, overwhelmed by joy, populated by valuable human beings, capable of being redeemed (if only on a small-scale in his work). I see, too, Vonnegut’s inescapable paradox, a paradox resolved only by Christ: victim-perpetrators seeking salvation and absolution, powerless to save themselves. Such a world resonates with my experience, and Christianity makes best sense of it. The God he denies is the One who enters into the world to save the humans Vonnegut cherishes.

Photo: “Severalls – Cornered” By R. Walker. CC License.