Love in the Ruins

Love in the Ruins

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.

Love in the ruins

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”?

Likewise, it seems that many so-called “believers” have more in common with Dr. Tom More than with his post-Reformation namesake — even as we cite prooftexts to justify our “doing as we please.”

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.

 


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Ferdinand and bull____.

Ferdinand and bull____.

OH HOW PERILOUS TO GET YOUR HEART’S DESIRE

Recently, while others flocked to see the latest Star Wars movie, I got to take our three oldest kids to see the film that we’ve been waiting for: Ferdinand.

Ferdinand, the bull.

(Dear Jedi groupies, I hear the Klingons were fantastic!)

Sadly, I had to leave Ferdinand early because our 2-year-old suddenly proclaimed that he felt sick.  And last I checked, it’s still illegal to yell “vomit!” in a crowded theater.

But I was there for the sad part.

Here it comes.

“THE BIG SHOW”

As the film opens, little Ferdinand grows up on a ranch called Casa del Toro.  He is there with his father (Naf), who is not only the biggest and toughest bull on the block, but also kind and loving toward his sensitive son.

Unfortunately, like all the other bulls, Ferdinand’s father wants nothing more than to make it to “the show” (the bullfights in Madrid).

And eventually, he does.

One day, a matador shows up to choose the fiercest bull to take to the arena. And as young Ferdinand looks on, they load his father on a trailer.

Unfortunately (of course), the trailer returns empty.

As a ranch-hand sprays it out with water, Ferdinand begins to realize: Daddy isn’t coming home.

“I’m not crying; you’re crying!” (*whisper-shouted to a 4-year-old).

THE TRAGEDY OF GETTING WHAT YOU WANT

While it’s risky to extract deep thoughts from children’s movies (See my prior post on the post-colonial undercurrent in last week’s episode of Paw Patrol), I couldn’t help but note the truth at work here.

For many of us, getting our heart’s desire can be disastrous.

The Bible shows this truth repeatedly.

In Romans 1, the evidence of God’s “wrath” against sinners is not a future-focused fire and brimstone, but a present-tense allowance of the heart’s own longing:

            God gave them over to the desires of their hearts… (vs. 24).

Likewise, in Proverbs (14.12) we are told that

            There is a way that seems right to a man / but in the end, it leads to death.

Still, my favorite example of the “bullfight principle” comes from Numbers 14.

After spying out the Promised Land, only Joshua and Caleb declare their wish to enter in to it. Everyone else proclaims that they would rather perish in the desert than have to face such fearsome enemies.

If only we had died … in this wilderness! (vs. 2)

In the end, God gives everyone their wish.

Joshua and Caleb enter in; the others die in the desert.

O how perilous to get your heart’s desire.

WE ARE NO DIFFERENT

Unfortunately, the reality behind our foolish wants usually seems less obvious in our own lives than in the Bible, or in Casa del Toro.

Be honest:

How many times have you gotten the very thing you longed for, only to be left with an acute case of buyer’s remorse?

If only I could marry him…

If only I could get that fancy house…

If only I could be deployed and see “real action”…

If only I could write a blogpost that would be read by thousands…

CHASING MAILMEN

In such ways, we become like the old dog (“Bear”) that my family used to own.

Every day he chased the mail truck.

Then, one day, he caught it.

Miraculously, he lived (only because my dad couldn’t find the .22 cartridge that he needed to put him out of his misery). But he never chased the mailman after that.

A NICE PLACE TO VISIT

Another illustration can be seen in an old episode of The Twilight Zone.

In “A Nice Place to Visit,” a thief named Valentine dies in a robbery and then finds himself in “heaven.”

Here, he gets whatever he wants, instantly and endlessly. He visits a casino and wins every bet; he eats his favorite food for every meal.  But he eventually finds this “paradise” monotonous and smothering.

“I’m tired of heaven, take me to ‘the other place,’” he screams.

To which his guardian demon responds:

“Whatever gave you the idea you were in Heaven, Mr. Valentine? This is the other place!”

The Twilight Zone is bad theology.  Even so, one view of final separation from God is to see it as the ultimate example of “getting what you want”—that is, if your wants have been eternally corrupted (See C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce).

“Hell” is when corrupt desire finally achieves its object.

In this state, divine love might feel like a torture—like plunging frost-bitten fingers into an otherwise refreshing bath.

REDEEMING OUR DESIRES

What then is the solution?

As folks like Jonathan Edwards and Augustine knew well, the answer is not “tamping down” of human longings, but rather redirecting them toward more worthy ends.

Enter grace.

Enter The Holy Spirit.

Enter discipleship.

In such ways, God enflames and redirects our loves, so that they may point toward the One who is actually capable of satisfying them.

When this happens, we become like Ferdinand.

We learn to love the smell of “flowers” over bullfights, and more importantly, bull____.