Justice and Patriotism in The Four Loves

One of the fundamental truths about the human condition is that justice is blind, but we are not. That is, murder, adultery, envy, and theft are wrong, regardless of who is committing them. On the other hand, the murder we wish to commit always seems justifiable, and our adultery is the product of a pure love and a marriage that should never have been, while our envy is grounded in what we really deserve, and what we steal is only that which is owed us. We have a habit of believing the facts are always on our side.

Now the examples I gave are all driven by self-interest, but we can also cheat justice out of love for others. We all know parents whose children can do no wrong. Their love for their children prevents them from clearly assessing the situation, and from doing what justice demands. Love may be blind, but they are not. They see their children.

There are many loves in the world—love of children or love of parents, love of spouse, and love of friends to name just a few. One love in particular is the cause of much bickering, especially between what we call the right and the left at the present moment: love of country.

In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis writes of two kinds of love of country, exemplified by two extremely patriotic Englishmen. In order to understand the stark contrast between them, he outlines several elements which go into love of country:

“First, there is love of home, of the place we grew up in or the places, perhaps many, which have been our homes; and of all places fairly near these and fairly like them; love of old acquaintances, of familiar sights, sounds and smells. Note that at its largest this is, for us, a love of England, Wales, Scotland, or Ulster. Only foreigners and politicians talk about ‘Britain.’”[1]

We might say the same about “America.” To be sure, we can have a certain allegiance to the whole thing, but for most of us the love of the familiar places and people is quite specific—Chicagoland is a very different place from the Five Boroughs or the Bay Area, and Deep East Texas is not Eastern Washington, and Northern Michigan is most assuredly not South Florida. This element of patriotism does not stretch especially far.

“With this love of place there goes a love for the way of life; for beer and tea and open fires, trains with compartments in them and an unarmed police force and all the rest of it; for the local dialect and (a shade less) for our native language. As Chesterton says, a man’s reasons for not wanting his country to be ruled by foreigners are very like his reasons for not wanting his house to be burned down; because ‘he could not even begin’ to enumerate all the things he would miss.

“It would be hard to find any legitimate point of view from which this feeling could be condemned. As the family offers the first step beyond self-love, so this offers us the first step beyond family selfishness. Of course it is not pure charity; it involves love our neighbours in the local, not of our Neighbour, in the Dominical, sense. But those who do not love the fellow-villagers or fellow-townsmen whom they have seen are not likely to have got very far towards loving “man” whom they have not.”[2]

I began this post by bringing up that crucial fact that justice is blind, but we are not. Here we begin to see the way in which love of country might color our vision. The way my friends and neighbors do things will seem quite normal and sensible and right, while the way someone from a distant community does things will seem odd and backwards and wrong. In the heads of most 21st-century Americans we have a notion that this may lead quickly and inevitably to war and foreign conquest—let’s make the whole world like ourselves. Lewis is not so hasty. We must remember that this is merely love of the familiar:

“Of course patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude towards foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?”[3]

Both these statements are straightforward and sensible. We will protect our children if they are threatened, but not many people go out looking to kidnap other children and teach them to behave like their own. Similarly, we recognize that the affection we feel for our parents is something which most people who had a decent childhood are likely to share. No one is demanding that there be only one “World’s Best Dad” mug. Nor is someone else having different friends much of a threat to our own friendships. Indeed, the fact that we all have similar loves towards different objects is one point which unites us, rather than divides us. We know what it is like to have friends and family, and sympathize with those that do.

Lewis goes on to add a second element to love of country:

“The second ingredient is a particular attitude to our country’s past. I mean to the past as it lives in popular imagination; the great deeds of our ancestors. Remember Marathon. Remember Waterloo. ‘We must be free or die who speak the tongue Shakespeare spoke.’ This past is felt both to impose an obligation and to hold out an assurance; we must not fall below the standard our fathers set us, and because we are their sons there is good hope we shall not.”[4]

Living in the age we do, we are of course aware that the past is not all sunshine and daisies. Our ancestors may have done—and likely did—horrible deeds as well as great ones. But Lewis thinks “it is possible to be strengthened by the image of the past without being either deceived or puffed up.”[5] The key, he suggests, is to maintain the distinction between patriotic odes and real history. Let Mel Gibson do grand things on the big screen, but let us become familiar with every shade of gray in the actual classroom. We may enjoy the former, but not take it seriously. The latter we may or may not enjoy, but we must certainly take seriously.

But why does Lewis value the former at all? Why does he want to keep the rose-hued image of our nation’s heroes, rather than occupy our images of them entirely with the subtle shades of reality? His answer is brief, but pointed, “But who can condemn what clearly makes many people, at many important moments, behave so much better than they could have done without its help?”[6] The Founding Fathers of the United States fought against overwhelming odds and won. We too may one day find ourselves having to fight against overwhelming odds, and it is those tales of bygone glory, not the complicated reality, that will inspire us to real deeds of heroism. Our ancestors may not have actually achieved high standards of virtue, but those high standards, understood appropriately, are a force for good in the world.

But Lewis is quite explicit that this element of love of country, the love of great deeds done by her past heroes, is far more dangerous than simple love of the familiar. If we confuse our folktales for history, in may creep “the tacit assumption that other nations have not equally their heroes; perhaps even the belief—surely it is very bad biology—that we can literally ‘inherit’ a tradition. And these almost inevitably lead on to a third thing that is sometimes called patriotism.”[7] It is this third thing which most concerns us, and which can most easily lead to a miscarriage of justice.

“The third thing is not a sentiment but a belief: a firm, even prosaic belief that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others. I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, ‘But sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?’ He replied with total gravity—he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar—‘Yes, but in England it’s true.’ To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid.”[8]

This, to me, is more insidious than the flaws of the previous two shades of “love of country” combined. It is so insidious, because it understands itself not to be the biased affection of a son for his mother country, but objective assessment of reality. I once knew someone who roundly condemned patriotism in general, even perhaps the idea of nations, soberly explain that his part of the country was most morally, technologically, and politically advanced part of the world. Indeed, the major city in that region was the center from which all culture emanated. Simply listing Hollywood, New York, and Washington, D.C. next to each other is more than enough to debunk such nonsense, leaving actually foreign countries out of the equation.

But Lewis is quite right that this misguided love of country can “produce asses that kick and bite.” It is only when we genuinely believe that our own land is actually morally superior to all others that we begin to claim that justice and the good of our country are the same thing. In doing so, we confer upon our country a divine status:

“This brings us to the fourth ingredient. If our nation is really so much better than others it may be held to have either the duties or the rights of a superior being towards them. In the nineteenth century the English became very conscious of such duties: the ‘white man’s burden.’ What we called natives were our wards and we their self-appointed guardians. This was not all hypocrisy. We did do them some good. But our habit of talking as if England’s motives for acquiring an empire (or any youngster’s motives for seeking a job in the Indian Civil Service) had been mainly altruistic nauseated the world. And yet this showed the sense of superiority working at its best. Some nations who have also felt it have stressed the rights not the duties. To them, some foreigners were so bad that one had the right to exterminate them. Others, fitted only to be hewers of wood and drawers of water to the chosen people, had better be made to get on with their hewing and drawing. Dogs, know your betters!”[9]

Everybody today knows the joke about America bringing democracy to other nations, and “You’d better watch out, or we’ll bring democracy to your country next!” This sense that we are objectively superior justifies placing ourselves in charge of other nations. We did not conquer the Indians because we loved the East Coast too much. We spread west because we thought we had an objectively superior civilization, and we were therefore justified in either carrying it to the barbarians, or else destroying those barbarians who were beyond saving.

At last we come to the point where Lewis can contrast the patriotism of Kipling with the patriotism of Chesterton. Both men “love their country,” but what this means is very different from one man to the other:

“Chesterton picked on two lines from Kipling as the perfect example. It was unfair to Kipling, who knew—wonderfully, for so homeless a man—what the love of home can mean. But the lines, in isolation, can be taken to sum up the thing. They run:

If England was what England seems
‘Ow quick we’d drop ‘er. But she ain’t!

Love never spoke that way. It is like loving your children only ‘if they’re good,’ your wife only while she keeps her looks, your husband only so long as he is famous and successful. ‘No man,’ said one of the Greeks, ‘loves his city because it is great, but because it is his.’ A man who really loves his country will love her in her ruin and degradation—‘England, with all thy faults, I love thee still.’ She will be to him ‘a poor thing but mine own.’ He may think her good and great, when she is not, because he loves her; the delusion is up to a point pardonable. But Kipling’s soldier reverses it; he loves her because he thinks her good and great—loves her on her merits. She is a fine going concern and it gratifies his pride to be in it. How if she ceased to be such? The answer is plainly given: ‘’Ow quick we’d drop ‘er.’ When the ship begins to sink he will leave her.”[10]

This “patriotism” is nothing of the kind. There is no love in it, and no loyalty. It is the flip side of believing your country is objectively superior. On the one hand, you may perform horrible atrocities because whatever she does is by definition better. On the other, if you ever cease to believe she is better, she loses your loyalty and you will do nothing to improve her. The first is straightforwardly bad for other countries, and the second straightforwardly bad for your own. Nothing good comes out of it.

In today’s global society, and in a society which values individual freedom so highly, we are skeptical of anything that might place demands on the individual, any sort of love which might call for service or lasting loyalty. Having seen the pitfalls of so-called patriotism, it is only natural that many of us might question the value of patriotism at all. Justice is blind, but we are blinded to it by our love of country. So why not do away with love of country?

But this does not fix the problem. The very flaw in the false patriotism of the two lines from Kipling is that the soldier does not love his country. Instead, he believes it to be objectively superior. If we do away with love of country, true justice is not what steps into its place:

“For a long time yet, or perhaps forever, nations will live in danger. Rulers must somehow nerve their subjects to defend them or at least to prepare for their defence. Where the sentiment of patriotism has been destroyed this can be done only be presenting every international conflict in a purely ethical light. If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for ‘their country’ they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity.”[11]

It should be pointed out that though Lewis mentions “nations” living in danger, this is really shorthand for any group of people. The European Union, transnational though it is, will encounter internal and external threats, and must be defended. Progressive Westerners consider themselves members of a global community that transcends borders, but even this global community will have to confront reactionary or anti-globalist threats. Until the end of history, mankind is in conflict with itself, and if there is any good worth preserving anywhere in it, from time to time we will be called to fight in its defense. In patriotic countries, love of country could serve as this call to arms. In communities that reject patriotism, so higher ideal must step in. This, however, is not the path to justice:

“This is a step down, not up. Patriotic sentiment did not of course need to disregard ethics. Good men needed to be convinced that their country’s cause was just; but it was still their country’s cause, not the cause of justice as such. The difference seems to me important. I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds—wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine—I become insufferable. The pretence that when England’s cause is just we are on England’s side—as some neutral Don Quixote might be—for that reason alone is equally spurious. And nonsense draws evil after it. If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world.”[12]

We like to talk these days as if Adolf Hitler went about conquering and committing atrocities simply because of his love of country. This is false. Hitler was not overly loyal to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which he was born, nor to the Germany to which he immigrated. He believed that the Aryan race was the most advanced portion of the human species, and that its success meant the continuation of humanity, and its failure meant the end of all humanity had ever stood for. His cause was a transcendent cause, not a local or parochial one. And for that reason, his was a war of annihilation.

Stalin did not conquer in the name of Russia, but in the name of humanity—he was liberating the international working class from its capitalist oppressors, not making Russia great again. It must be remembered that he was among the revolutionaries who, temporarily, had made Russia cease to be great. Likewise, the Great Khan thought he ruled all under heaven by divine right, and the early Islamic empire conquered because it was spreading the religion of the one true to God. And as Lewis said, the British Empire was spreading civilization to all mankind because the good things of Britain were not merely British goods—they were universal, and it was the white man’s burden to spread them. It is pretending our nation’s good is the same as some transcendent ideal that leads to blood and death and empire, not mere love of our locale.

“The glory of the old sentiment was that while it could steel men to the utmost endeavor, it still knew itself to be a sentiment. Wars could be heroic without pretending to be Holy Wars. The hero’s death was not confused with the martyr’s. And (delightfully) the same sentiment which could be so serious in a rear-guard action could also in peacetime take itself as lightly as all happy loves often do. It could laugh at itself. Our older patriotic songs cannot be sung without a twinkle in the eye; later ones sound more like hymns.”[13]

Justice is blind, but we are not. In a global age and an individualistic age, we think this means it is better to destroy all the sentiments which color our vision of the world. But this does not make us objective and non-partisan, it merely blinds us to our own partisan spirit. The way to prevent our sentiments from leading us to injustice is not to deny our sentiments, but to acknowledge that is all they are. They may lead us to loving our neighbors, or defending our dependents, or doing some heroic deed of self-sacrifice. They may just as easily lead to prejudice. The one thing they may not do is become themselves the standard of justice.

My friend who thought his region the center of the world was not liberated from prejudice because he thought it was objectively true. Instead, his prejudice was given all the shine of holiness and transcendence. If we learn to love the little neighborhood in which God has placed us, even if it is not a very good one, we will not become shackled to prejudices either. Instead, we may learn to sympathize with people whose ways of life are very different than our own, simply because their love for those ways is not.

 

 

I wrote this post after listening to the first episode in the Mere Fidelity podcast’s series on the The Four Loves. I highly recommender the podcast in general, and this episode in particular. These links are to the web page, but it can also be found on iTunes.


 

[1] Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991. Pg. 23.

[2] Lewis, pgs. 23-24.

[3] Lewis, pg. 24.

[4] Lewis, pgs. 24-25.

[5] Lewis, pg. 25.

[6] Lewis, pg. 25.

[7] Lewis, pg. 26.

[8] Lewis, pg. 26.

[9] Lewis, pg. 27.

[10] Lewis, pgs. 27-28.

[11] Lewis, pg. 29.

[12] Lewis, pg. 29.

[13] Lewis, pgs. 29-30.

Dante, Courtly Love, and the Contemplative Life

This quarter in the eighth grade great books course I teach, we are spending several weeks on Dante’s Inferno. The class covers the medieval period in general, a period I find fascinating. And in some ways, Dante is the distillation of the best of medieval literature, cosmology, and theology. It’s fun.

Dante himself is quite the character. In the Divine Comedy, the work of which the Inferno is only the first third, he portrays himself wandering through a dark wood, plagued by vicious beasts, trying to get to the top of a mountain. He is met in those woods by the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, who is going to take him through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven to reach God. But it turns out that Virgil has been sent to Dante by Beatrice, the love of Dante’s life.

Fun fact: Dante met Beatrice when she was eight and he was nine, she married another man, and died three years later at the age of twenty-four. Dante had been married to someone else for five years at that point, and would end up having several kids with this other woman. Yet throughout his life, Dante maintained that he was madly in love with Beatrice, and had been since the day they met. He wrote a collection of love poetry in her honor that he published five years after she died, and finished the Divine Comedy, in which she had a starring role, only a year before his own death.

So, that’s interesting. Actually, it’s less weird than it sounds, if only slightly. This was the era of courtly love poetry, when falling in love with married women was the thing to do. In a lot of the stories of knights in shining armor fighting for the honor of fair ladies, said fair ladies were often married to another man. Now, a good Christian knight would never try to act on his love in an unbecoming manner–say, by sleeping with the lady whom he loved so madly. No, he would just admire her from afar, and fight in her honor. In theory. There was that whole Lancelot thing. Also Tristram and Isolde. And maybe one or two others. But most of the time it was platonic.

To modern sensibilities, this concept is wildly foreign. In what possible context could this be interpreted as a good thing, especially in the eyes of such a heavily churched culture, especially coming from such a self-consciously Christian guy as Dante? Well, there actually might be an explanation.

In the third part of the Divine Comedy, Paradiso, Dante ascends through the heavens one heavenly sphere at a time. Just as in Hell below, people are here placed into separate spheres based on their character. In the sphere of Mars, for instance, are those who fought for the faith. Above them, on Jupiter, are righteous rulers. But at the top, on Saturn, the last real planet in medieval cosmology, we find… monks?

Actually, this sphere is usually labeled “The Heaven of the Contemplatives.” Contemplatives are pretty much what they sound like–people who spend their lives in contemplation, either of God himself or of various divine mysteries. This would certainly include monks as we normally think of them, but it would also cover other people who led a similar lifestyle of meditation on holy things.

This is actually a huge part of the medieval view of the world. The best thing you could be was not one of those adventurous knights, not some righteous king like Arthur or Charlemagne, nor even necessarily a regular priest or bishop, caught up in the affairs of your parish or bishopric. No, medievals considered a life of contemplation to be the pinnacle of human existence.

There are several reasons for this, but one major reason is grounded in their philosophy of the soul. Medieval philosophy said that there were three kinds of souls–vegetable, animal, and rational. The vegetable soul was the kind of life that grew, but didn’t do much else. You know, like veggies. The animal soul belonged to life forms that could move around and act on their environment. But the last kind of soul, belonging to men and angels, and perhaps just a few others, was the rational soul. This kind of soul was capable of reason.

This view had certain implications. Lifestyles that primarily involved action, that involved working or fighting or other such things, were things we held in common with the beasts. Ruling, which engaged more of one’s reasoning abilities, would be higher up the chain. After all, you were using the faculties that distinguished you from lower creation. But higher up, higher even than wise and just rulers, would be people who did nothing but use their reasoning faculties. These were the people who contemplated the deep and holy things of life, using that faculty which God gave to his children and his servants above all others.

So what does this have to do with courtly love? Well, imagine a kind of love which was not focused on your merely animal drives, one which demanded instead that you meditate upon your beloved, use reason to contemplate her. Imagine, if you will, a contemplative rather than an active love. In fact, imagine a love where the actual activities of romance are ruled out, but not a higher and more platonic admiration. So, yeah, imagine you are in love with a married woman.

It’s kind of twisted, but it makes a weird sort of sense. If reason is the best part of our nature, and animal instincts to some extent reduce us to the level of beasts, then a love which is elevated to a solely rational level is a higher love. Of course, in practice it becomes something that is either creepy, if unrequited, or adulterous, if the lady returns your affections. It’s dangerous, and there’s no doubt it led to all sorts of excesses as well as some very sketchy fiction at the time. Dante even placed a couple adulterers in Hell who were inspired to sin thanks to reading courtly love poetry. But it does make that twisted sort of sense.

Now, no society is really simple, especially one as diverse and cosmopolitan, yet weirdly provincial, as medieval Europe could sometimes be. This little chain of reasoning no doubt leaves out quite a lot, and paints a very uneven portrait of a culture shaped by people from all sorts of backgrounds, with all sorts of weird quirks and personal histories. Still, it’s a striking and surprisingly coherent story. It’s just the sort of thing to make you wonder what weirdly alien practices we take for granted as a society, and how strange some of our values might be in the light of history. What might our descendants think of us seven hundred years from now?

Whom He Loves, He Chastens

I am prone to long bouts of melancholy when life gets stressful. Existing problems magnify themselves, I grow to worry about problems that don’t yet exist, and the resulting mass of stresses becomes crippling. Sometimes, swamped with my mess of fears, I cry out to God, commit my worries to him, and plow ahead, unafraid of–or at least unconcerned with–failure.

Recently such a time of stress and darkness came to a head, and it seemed I was delivered miraculously from my troubles. Not by my hard work or some inner strength, this deliverance was entirely undeserved, a free gift. The days that followed were filled with joy, sunshine, and fresh air. My life took an upward turn, and just kept ascending. Each day was better than the last. Soon all my trials lay in the past, forgotten.

 

“So it shall be, when the Lord your God brings you into the land of which He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give you large and beautiful cities which you did not build, houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, hewn-out wells which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant—when you have eaten and are full— then beware, lest you forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.”

Deuteronomy 6:10-12

Men have a habit of forgetting where they came from. When life is good, we shove our troubles into the past, and dwell in the present. We cry out for deliverance from our enemies, and when we are delivered, we forget they ever existed. And when our Egypt is forgotten, why should we remember the one who brought us out?

“Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statutes which I command you today, lest—when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them; and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; when your heart is lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage; who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, in which were fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty land where there was no water; who brought water for you out of the flinty rock; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do you good in the end—then you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’”

Deuteronomy 8:11-17

In the wake of deliverance, as land and wealth and freedoms accumulate, we begin to think that they belong to us. It was our own brilliance, our own unique insight, our skills and strengths and mighty arms that won the day. We built these cities with our own two hands, we raised these crops, this is our land.

But it is not. What was a gift in the day of deliverance, what looked like salvation in the deepest pits, remains so when we have grown used to our new graces. Salvation and later glory have always been out of our hands, and always will be. What the Lord gives, the Lord can take, and still his name is blessed. It is his to do with as he pleases.

“Two things I request of You
(Deprive me not before I die):
Remove falsehood and lies far from me;
Give me neither poverty nor riches—
Feed me with the food allotted to me;
Lest I be full and deny You,
And say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or lest I be poor and steal,
And profane the name of my God.”

Proverbs 30:7-9

There is no worse fate than to grow apart from the God of the Universe. Nothing is worse than to be disconnected from the one who gives life, and gives it meaning.

Not all times of trial are a curse. The ordinary pressures of life and the consequences of our foolish actions fall on our heads, not always as a punishment, but as a blessing. Better to suffer from time to time than to grow rich and forget the one who made us so. Better a life of wear and tear with thanksgiving than a life of ease with pride. The troubles of one are superficial and temporary. The dark heart of the other is eternal and spoils all we might enjoy.

“Some trust in chariots, and some in horses;
But we will remember the name of the Lord our God.
They have bowed down and fallen;
But we have risen and stand upright.”

Psalm 20:7-8

Have a blessed week.

David H.

Time and Love

Humanity are an affectionate lot. Really. No doubt, we love imperfectly, but there is no question that we love quite a lot. We love our parents, our kids, our other halves, our cousins and countrymen. We love the smell of rain and the taste of foreign cuisine. We love the homely, the exotic, and that subtle and perfect mixture of both.  Stories, landscapes, music, words, and small furry animals with deceptively sharp claws. We love like crazy.

But we are imperfect creatures, marred from almost the beginning. Warped as we are, we can no longer love as we should. There are a dozen ways this is true, but to a guy like me, one stands tall in the lineup. As Alabama points out, modern man is in a hurry to get things done, and we rush and rush until life’s no fun. In the fast pace of a society with rapid transportation and instant communication, we are slaves to the clock. All that bustling means we do less of what we love and more of what we think is expected. And after that, we spend time vegging to make up for the rapid pace of a packed day.

This hits me particularly hard, because where others might see calendars and schedules, I see a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. For example, I went to college with an absolute passion for reading and writing and all things high fantasy. Yeah, I was that nerd. But with college came class, and homework, and a job (when I could get it). In the cracks I tried to cram a new circle of friends and a freshly forged social life. By the end of sophomore year, I could not read for a solid hour without setting the book down half a dozen times. At the beginning of junior year, I couldn’t tell you the names of half those books I used to love. I spent no time on what I loved, and soon I had lost the ability to.

This is doubly true of my writing. I used to write in a dozen different styles in imitation of as many genres. I had scribbled out scraps of high fantasy, scholarly essays, dark fantasy, political commentary, “scholarly” treatises, science fiction, a smattering of history and chronicle, snooty poetry, armchair theology, and singsong lyrics. After two years of no good reading and only hasty writing, I descended into drivel. The only topic I had any strength on was what had occupied my mind continuously: home.

By now it should be obvious that a great deal of what I put on this blog is just working out whatever I’m dealing with at the moment, so it should come as no surprise that I could go on in detail with more examples from my own life. I’ll spare you. I’m sure you can sympathize, and with a little reflection you can probably come up with far more painful examples. The fact is, if you love something, you have to devote time to it, or you will lose it.

This means, especially if you are like me and have zero time management skills, you can’t put off whatever it is you hold to be important. There will always be something else to do. If there is a time vacuum in your life, it will be filled. You have to fight for what you love, cramming it into spare moments and carving out blocks of your day. You do not have time for what you love, you make time for what you love. And it is that effort that shows you love it, and that allows you to love it better.

That said, I am going to end this post and finish up chapter one, draft two of my novel. Go and do likewise, with whatever you love.

God bless.

Against Sulking

There is a certain sort of person that you can see sulking in any corner he finds. He is quiet and grim, unless he has something biting to say. His favorite books, movies, and music are all depressing pits of meaninglessness and despair. He is bitter to the core, and if you could hear his thoughts, there would be nothing but ceaseless lamentation for his every misfortune.

Nobody is that man all the time, but I see him in the mirror far too often. I’ve always wondered what makes people like this, why they keep returning to the same old wounds, the same painful places, never letting the blues just die. I’ll be the first to testify that it’s not fun. It’s a dark place to be in, and the longer you’re there, the harder it is to get out. And when you do, you’ve always got to live with the consequences of wasted life and neglected friendships. But, like a druggie to his fix or a dog to his vomit, I keep coming back.

I think this spirit is the same one that catches ahold of me whenever I display some shred of maturity and magnifies it into a heroic display of sterling character.  I think they are the same because both involve telling a story where I am the protagonist, where my defeats are grand tragedies and all my victories tremendous conquests. Both make the story about me. Both make me feel important.

The sulker there in the corner is not a confident man. He is a man whose faith in God (the only true confidence) is weak, so he puts it in himself instead. He may not think he better than those around him, but he certainly thinks he is more important. And when he fails, he would rather stew in his own juices than repent.

Repentance. To those in the midst of the blues, trapped in their own self-sustained depression, the suggestion that they call their state a sin is risable. “No!” they protest, “Don’t you understand the pain I’m in? The stuff I’ve been through? I’ve a got a reason to be depressed! My life is hard!” Hogwash.

If this sort of boy (he is hardly a man) ever takes the time to actually talk to another human being, to find out how their life is, he will quickly find their problems are as hard as his. There is not one person on this earth who is not struggling with some physical affliction, some secret sin, or some private drama. Everyone has experienced heartbreak, or lost a loved one. And most of them get out, live life, and at least try to enjoy it.

Even if that were not the case, we simply do not have the right to remain cooped up in our own heads, letting the world pass us by as we dwell on our own troubles. We are not mere individuals. The Lord made us to live in community, to help our neighbors and brighten our brothers’ days. Our time is not our own. Our importance does not lie in the private narratives we tell ourselves, but in the love we have to contribute to God and his people. Sulking is dereliction of duty.

But is there no place for godly sorrow? Of course there is. But as G.K. Chesterton put it, “Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday, joy is the uproarious labor by which all things live.” Do you have a genuine hurt, a trauma that must be dealt with? Then mourn. But mourn fast and hard, and leave it behind. We are a new creation, and sorrow is the dead relic of a past life. We are called to move on and celebrate the world of blessings we have been given.

Are you stuck with the blues? Then repent, crank up the feel-good tunes, and dance them away. Are you depressed? Go find someone to bless. Are you bitter? Let go, move on, and enjoy what you’ve been given. It is a big world, but you would never find out by sulking in the corner.

Lovers & Haters

Most people today tend to think all love is good and all hate is bad. Haters are just horrible people. Haters be hatin’, and we be hatin’ the haters hatin’. Love, on the other hand, is good. Love conquers all, love outranks all, love justifies all.

That’s stupid.

If you love anything, you will hate to see it misused, abused, or corrupted. If you love anything, you have to take a stand for it, and hate that which threatens it. Want some examples?

I love romance, love, marriage, happy families. I hate divorce, cheating, calloused idiots, and breakups.

I love kids. I hate people that abuse and murder them. I hate abortion.

I love Christ. I hate to see his name misused.

I love the Church. I hate those who slander her and seek her destruction.

I love my family. I hate to see them in trouble.

I love my friends. I hate the things that make their lives miserable.

I love my country. I hate the sins that are steering it towards destruction.

Love is not a good thing in and of itself. Love is only good if you love something good. Gamblers love to gamble, druggies love the drug, and every sinner loves his sin. Love is also only good if you love something rightly. Stalin loved his communist utopia more than the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, and they paid for his misplaced love.

Nor is hate bad if you hate the right thing. Christ hates sin and the curse that comes with it. William Wilberforce hated the slave trade, and ended it for the entire British Empire. Imagine if we hated abortion, poverty, or the sex trade that much.

Hate is just love’s defense strategy, and anyone who refuses to hate what is evil is missing something. Take a look at these verses.

“Let those who love the LORD hate evil, for he guards the lives of his faithful ones and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.” Psalm 97:10

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” Romans 12:9

Sincere love, love of the Lord, requires that we hate evil. Ponder that. It’s a lesson the Church today would be good to learn.

Lonesome Dove: An American Epic

This summer I made it a goal to watch Lonesome Dove.

(For those of you tuning in twenty years late, Lonesome Dove is an epic miniseries stretching from South Texas and western Arkansas up into the wilds of Montana. Its all-star cast includes Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Anjelica Huston, and a half-dozen others more familiar for their faces than their names. Steve Buscemi of the crazy eyes is among them. This western, from an era when the western was thought to be dead, raked in the Emmys and Golden Globes. Back when Netflix still had that awesome “Local Favorites” feature, this was still number one in East Texas. If you haven’t seen it, you may want to take a six and a half hour break and come back when your situation has changed.)

Ahem. Back to “le point,” as the French have been known to not say. It was really good, the sort of thing that makes you feel and, if you’re a thinker, really makes you think. I’m reading the Iliad for class right now, and some of our discussions highlighted issues in Lonesome Dove. So while I’m not going to sit here and explain the intricacies of the worldview of that movie, which is beyond me anyways, I will point towards some interesting rabbit trails.

***spoiler alerts from here on out***

The main thread of the show is Captain Augustus “Gus” McCrae’s relationship with his buddy, Captain Woodrow F. Call. And, fittingly for a Texas story, the themes this thread brings out mostly have to do with pride. Gus is a playboy, decked out in his finery, smooth with words, pseudo-educated, quite the gambler, and a real chick magnet for someone his age. Call is a taciturn man, but stubborn as a mule when he wants something, such as a ranch in the unsettled wilds of Montana. He refuses to display any sort of emotion. As Gus says, he doesn’t want to admit he’s human like the rest of us. They’ve been friends since their younger days as rangers when they cleaned the Comanches out of South Texas. (I won’t quibble with that geographical oddity, we’ll just assume they have a good explanation I haven’t thought of).

As we watch their story develop, several interesting things happen. Gus dies of gangrene, refusing to let the doctor amputate his remaining leg. In a poignant moment, one of Call’s rare displays of emotion, at Gus’s bedside he cries out, “Damn your vanity!” Before he is left alone in this world, his friend makes him swear to take his body all the way back across the plains to a little grove where Gus was once happy with a woman. (Nobody ends up with their woman, and the women are all disappointed).

Call is no less prideful. He’s got walls a mile high and thicker than Chesterton’s gut. He won’t admit to loving any woman, especially the one who bore his child. And despite loving the boy in question, he can’t bring himself to say he’s the kid’s father. He ends up leaving his dream behind to take Gus’s body home, and we never do learn whether he returns to Montana.

Despite the destructiveness of pride in our heroes, and they are heroes, this universe is not entirely bleak. Every character is one we can love or hate with a passion, and every event is charged with the sort of emotion only a cowboy can take and not burst into laughter or tears.

And, interestingly, justice does prevail. Life’s not easy for the heroes, but no villain escapes this world alive. From the notorious outlaw Blue Duck to men who simply rode with the wrong crowd, sin ends in death. Tragedy may rule in Lonesome Dove, but so does justice.

Two more themes to note. Injuns. More than dispossessed natives or cruel barbarians, in Lonesome Dove Indians symbolize all the freedom, untamed wildness, and limitless expanse of the world before men like Gus and Call came to make it safe for soft city folk. In several places both men lament the passing away of that old world, the passing they helped to usher in. They don’t regret killing men that needed killing, and there were many, but they do regret the world it resulted in—a world without free land, and a world without buffalo.

Let me tack on that there is a (rather limited, but existent) amount of complexity with regards to said Native Americans. Blue Duck, the vile half-breed, is set in stark contrast to a poor, wandering band of Montanans who fear the encroaching white men. Still, we are left knowing that it is inevitable that both sides will eventually vanish.

Last rabbit trail I want to point to: womens. The women in this movie are treated, particularly by Gus, with a mixture of gallantry and carelessness. There is no doubt many of cowboys are just “looking for a poke,” but repeatedly we see that this cannot be separated from an emotional attachment. Men, of course, can ride off when they get scared, in a way that the women frequently won’t, but they don’t remain untouched by their decisions. And, outside of their friendship, nothing Gus and Call experience in this world is more important to them than specific women they once loved. The story ends in men that died sad but free, and women who are tough but lonely. And, strangely, few hold real grudges.

From start to stop, Lonesome Dove is an American epic. It explores many of the same themes of the Iliad, but in a context we are familiar with as a nation. Sadly, like the Iliad, we are left in an unredeemed world. This is a tragedy in which the only positive victories are those of justice to the lawless and simply having lived. Call is left alone and hopeless, his friend gone, his lover long gone, his son far away in Montana, and the town he began the story in left a dried-out husk of what it used to be. We are left asking the same question the Iliad begs—what can be done? Who can turn the hearts of the fathers to their sons, and husbands to their wives, and redeem a land grown corrupt? But that is a question for another day.