Thursday, April 17, 2008

"It Is A Monstrous Thing . . ."

Sometimes I lament that I do not have a popular blog; that is, I rarely do, except when I have something on hand about which I would love to spark a wild and free-ranging conversation. So, I'm going to go ahead and write about what I wish, and maybe someone or somefew who come along will be inspired to join in. (Somehow I have managed to include far too many "some--" words into one wee paragraph.)

I have been desperately trying to write a summer book recommendation of G.K. Chesterton's The Ball and the Cross, and I am already woefully late. I’ve missed the deadline, but never fear. Now it has turned into more of a quest to expand my understanding and appreciation of this great and puzzling novel, rather than a goal merely to get it published. I am exceedingly discomfited and ever-more mesmerized by this strange tale the more I delve into it.

This is the premise, for those who have never read the book: James Turnbull is a rationalist and atheist who runs a newspaper, properly -- yet unimaginatively -- titled, The Atheist, across the street from St. Paul's Cathedral. Here is no passive blasphemer: Mr. Turnbull is on a mission -- not from God, but against Him and all the irrationality and superstition he associates with belief in the Deity. The only trouble is, he has provoked absolutely no notice from the nominally Christian world of Edwardian London. Day after day he says "the worst thing that could be said; and it seemed accepted and ignored like the ordinary second best of the politicians."

One day, James Turnbull's world opens up; "at last a man came by who treated [his] secularist shop with a real respect and seriousness. He was a young man in grey plaid, and he smashed the window." Evan MacIan has journeyed down from the highlands of Scotland and found a world as alien to him as a distant planet. His sheltered, fervently Catholic upbringing has left him permanently out of step with the values of London, which he only realizes when he reads an article posted by Mr. Turnbull. Upon reading the assertions that the Virgin Birth is merely a Syriac expression of more ancient Mesopotamian myth, MacIan rises up with all the valor and outrage that a man of honor feels upon witnessing desecration. Once he has smashed Turnbull’s window, he challenges the editor to a duel. James Turnbull is delighted.

British law is not so well-pleased. The two are hauled before a judge who tsk-tsks MacIan’s sudden violence and fines him ten pounds. To the magistrate, this display of passion is in outrageous bad taste. Don’t you know, he chides MacIan, “the most religious people are not those who talk about it,” and certainly not those who will fight for it. Turnbull watches the proceedings and approaches MacIan after the hearing. “Well, sir,” said the editor of The Atheist, “Where is the fight to be? Name the field, sir.” And they are on.

The rest of the novel chronicles the attempts of MacIan and Turnbull to fight their duel with honor, while the entire brigade of British police and persons of various philosophical bents thwart them. The conflict in the story comes, therefore, not so much from the argument between the atheist and the Catholic, but more from a determinedly indifferent world “that has grown too cold to tolerate men who not only believe in something, but believe in it enough to fight for it,” as Sean P. Dailey wrote in the excellent introduction to the Barnes & Noble edition.

All this is a lead up to the passage that has been haunting me and that I want to open up for discussion. Early in their adventures, the runaway duelists encounter a man whom Chesterton calls “The Peacemaker.” This expansive personage tries to convince the heroes not to fight. He quotes Tolstoy: “Tolstoy has shown that violence merely breeds violence in the person towards whom it is used, whereas Love on the other hand, breeds Love. So, you see how I am placed. I am reduced to use Love in order to stop you. I am obliged to use love.” MacIan and Turnbull are not moved by this entreaty and prepare to engage. But The Peacemaker is not done. “I must and will stop this shocking crime,” he cries, crimson in the face. “It is against all modern ideas. It is against the principle of love. How do you, sir,” addressing MacIan, “who pretend to be Christian . . .”

MacIan’s interruption is the money quote:

MacIan turned upon him with a white face and bitter lip. “Sir,” he said, “talk about the principle of love as much as you like. You seem to me colder than a lump of stone; but I am willing to believe that you may at sometime have loved a cat, or a dog, or a child. When you were a baby, I suppose you loved your mother. Talk about love, then, until the world is sick of the word. But don’t you talk about Christianity. Don’t you dare say one word, white or black, about it. Christianity is, as far as you are concerned, a horrible mystery. Keep clear of it, keep silent upon it, as you would upon an abomination. It is a thing that has made men slay and torture each other; and you will never know why. It is a thing that has made men do evil that good might come; and you will never understand the evil, let alone the good. Christianity is a thing that could only make you vomit, till you are other than you are. I would not justify it to you, even if I could. Hate it, in God’s name, as Turnbull does, who is a man. It is a monstrous thing, for which men die. And if you will stand here and talk about love for another ten minutes it is very probable that you will see a man die for it.”

When I read this, my heart lunged in my chest. Chesterton pulled the shredded remains of the veil back in a different way for me. Leave it to Gilbert Keith to present a new facet of paradox in Christian faith; flinging it out with jolly little concern for this believer’s good night’s rest. Because I think, despite the general white-washing of many generations – a striving to push Christianity into a neat and tidy box of love and good deeds – every believer knows deep within that there is something horribly mysterious about the God who put on flesh to dwell with us, ultimately allowing His flesh to be pierced and His blood poured to make us holy. To have that God come so close to us that His spirit permeates our beings until we are not as we were, is as uncomfortable as it is comforting. To have our God go to such lengths for our holiness pushes upon us an obligation really to be holy. And the call to holiness is a monstrous thing, because it is uncompromising.

It seems that the big problem is defining Christian love. What does love mean, in the sense that Jesus wants us to live? Is it a cushy, feel-good triteness where nothing is demanded except tolerance and pacifism? (Another Chesterton quote comes to mind: Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.) When the world complains about the Church, it complains that we do not live the kind of love that the world expects – a love that The Peacemaker espouses. When the Church complains about itself, it is often the opposite – we regret and bemoan the softness and compromise that has crept into many fellowships. I cannot help but think that holiness is the polar opposite of tolerance. But, does that make it the opposite of love? Or is tolerance the real opposite of love – e.g. a tolerance of a man’s inability to swim while watching him drown?
So, I do not know quite what to make of this passage. Does anyone else have any input?

1 comment:

Ben said...

I apologize for leaving a comment for this but I wanted to send communicate with you through an email but couldn't find it anywhere on the blog. I am a male so that may have something to do with me not being able to find it but, at any rate, if you wouldn't mind, I'd love to be able to communicate via email. Mine is

Thank you. Ben