No one ever expects the English to be rascals.
That, at least, is the opinion of Dr. Thomas More, the self-confessed “bad Catholic” in Walker Percy’s strange and brilliant novel, Love in the Ruins.
they got rid of God two hundred years ago and became extraordinarily decent to prove they didn’t need him.
Regardless of the truth of More’s statement, it is clear that Percy’s novel desires to explore the relationship between belief and obedience; faith and morality; doctrine and ethics in the modern world.
For his own part, Dr. More is afflicted by Christian belief as by a terminal condition—“God, the Jews, Christ, the whole business”—but as he admits:
I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all. Generally, I do as I please.
I am a Renaissance pope.
Nevertheless I still believe.
LOVE IN THE RUINS
I read Love in the Ruins early this summer and found it enthralling.
It is a dystopian apocalypse set near New Orleans, after the “Christ-forgetting, Christ-haunted” United States has been pulled apart by tribalism, identity politics, racial tension, and technology gone wrong.
It was published in 1971 but reads as fresh as ever.
The main character (More) is an alcoholic psychiatrist, whose daughter died and whose wife “ran off with a pagan Englishman.”
Like all of Percy’s novels, it is filled with theological insights, and like all good novels it resists cliched conclusions.
Despite the dark setting, the book is frequently hilarious—as when the evangelical (“Knotheads”) throw a patriotic Pro-Am golf tournament on July 4th, complete with a giant banner that reads: “Jesus Christ, the Greatest Pro of Them All!”
I’ll let you read it.
A CRATER OF THE GOSPEL
For now, my interest in the book has to do with that opening quotation (about the Brits), and with what Jamie Smith speaks of as “craters of the gospel.”
Smith’s point (via Charles Taylor) is that while modern culture is increasingly post-Christian, many “craters” of the gospel’s influence remain—like pockmarked impact-zones upon the surface of the moon.
I’ve noticed something like this even in the moral concerns of avowed atheists like Sam Harris and Dax Shephard, who have almost a hyper-sensitivity for certain ethical issues, despite acknowledging that all such “absolutes” are mere human preferences.
they got rid of God … and became extraordinarily decent to prove they didn’t need him.
Far from ridiculing the moral outrage of such atheists, however, I am grateful for it in some cases—even as I ponder the extent to which they realize they are harvesting from vineyards not their own; “plowing craters” so to speak; without fully understanding that “An enemy did this” (Mt. 13.28).
How long can it last?
What will be the longterm results of such selective “worldview-appropriation”?
Which camp does more damage?
NOT PIGS NOR ANGELS
Regardless of the answers, Percy’s novel is both brilliant and hilarious, even as it holds out hope that when “lust [gives] way to sorrow,” we may realize
It is you [God] that I love in the beauty of the world and in all the lovely girls and dear good friends, and it is pilgrims we are, wayfarers on a journey, and not pigs, nor angels.
Check it out (here), if you need a summer fiction read.
Like this post? Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).
Each newsletter will contain material not available on the blog, including free excerpts from forthcoming books.
I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.