We're All Monsters: Ralph Wood on the Good, the Bad, and the Human
“By our nature, we are eccentric. We’re off center. The world has its own center: fallen, lost, though many ways good. Christians have a different center. Christ is our center. That makes us stand out if we’re faithful in ways that are odd. That’s who the saints are. The saints are the odd wads who have stood out from society—cultures they would have been predicted to conform to.”
Oddities, weirdos, monsters—what is the place of the strange and monstrous in literature and film? And how does can these products of the human imagination help us understand the fallen condition of humanity?—both in the great depths of sin, and in the heights of redemptive possibility.
Ralph C. Wood has served as University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University since 1998, and taught at Wake Forest University prior to that. He is an expert on 19th- and 20th-century literature, especially at the intersection of Christianity and secularity. He’s author and editor of many books and articles, including Tolkien Among Moderns, Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God, Literature and Theology, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, The Gospel According to Tolkien, and The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in O’Connor, Percy, Updike, and De Vries.
In this episode, Ralph Wood casts light on the monstrosity of humanity, the goodness of God, and finding grace and hope along the dark terrain of human history, all through the lens of literature and faith.
- 1:18—Frankenstein, “It’s alive!!”
- 1:34—King Kong
- 1:48—The Wolfman
- 1:59—The Blob
- 2:20—Gremlins (mogwai!)
- 2:37—The Fly
- 2:44—The scariest and goriest of them all…
- 3:02—A Quiet Place
- 3:14—Stranger Things
- 5:35—Ralph Wood’s early life and how he came to love books
- 7:12—Reading is under threat; “sustained imaginative sympathy”—how to be a good reader
- 11:55—Poetry as the highest of literary forms—”Above all, learn to read poetry. Poetry was once, I’m sure you know, the common pastime of every educated person. It’s now almost entirely lost.”
- 13:30—There is no such thing as “Children’s Books”
- 14:07—On the Catholic writers of the 20th Century—the echoes of their imagination; their strange, violent, grotesque characters
- 17:39—”Catholics have a tremendous advantage over us Protestants in having at the core of Catholic faith and worship, the sacramental imagination. … I’m glad to see that in our time, evangelicals are recovering that sacramental imagination because without it, we’re doomed.”
- 20:15—Ad break. “Charting a Course Through Grief”
- 22:13—What we can learn by thinking of ourselves as ‘monsters’—”Not all that is monstrous is evil.”
- 29:30—Christian Eccentricity; Christ as our center; man as the good monster, not just the evil monster
- 32:12—On Chesterton’s fiction: “Chesterton’s fiction has about it that wonderful lightness, comedy, paradox of the Christian faith. He defines paradox wonderfully. ‘Paradox,’ he says, ‘is truth standing on its head and waving its legs to get our attention. It’s truth upside down.’ Of course, that’s what the Kingdom is, the Kingdom is the world turned upside down.”
- 32:52—Chesteron on “Nightmare” and encounter with horror
- 34:45—Is there any hope of waking from the nightmare? Chesterton as Augustinian
- 35:35—The Ballad of the White Horse—”I tell you naught for your comfort. Yea, naught for your desire, save that the sky grows darker yet, and the sea rises higher. Night shall be thrice night over you, and heaven an iron cope. Do you have joy without a cause? Yea, faith without a hope?”
- 37:25—”Christians don’t live on the hope that things are going to get better. If we live by that hope, we might quote St. Paul, ‘We of all men are most hopeless.’ Things are not going to get better. The trajectory of history is not upward, onward, progressive, but always an undulating hope, followed by loss of hope, followed by new hope, etc.”
- 38:15—Death has already been conquered
- 40:26—”My best teachers were those who really pushed my nose into the cold snows of modern horror. That’s my point. Unless you face the horror, that’s what the cross is, the ultimately horrible event that we call, as Elliot says, ‘Good Friday,’ because God made it good. Not only in the Resurrection, but of course in calling us to live out the life of the cross, being willing to die without earthly hope, but in the confidence of hope beyond hope.”
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Evan Rosa: The Table Audio is made possible by the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Religion Trust.
Ralph Wood: By our nature, we are eccentric. We’re off center. The world has its own center: fallen, lost, though many ways good. Christians have a different center. Christ is our center. That makes us stand out if we’re faithful in ways that are odd. That’s who the saints are. The saints are the odd wads who have stood out from society—cultures they would have been predicted to conform to.
ER: I’m Evan Rosa, and you’re listening to The Table Audio, a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
ER: We are all monsters, you, me, your sweet and delicate grandma, we’re monsters. Here me out on this. We’re eerily and secretly drawn to life’s horrors, because we’re obsessed with our fears. We write them into books, and movies and really good TV these days. Of course, like any good monster flick, whether it’s classics from the early days of film, “Frankenstein.”
Victor: He’s alive. Oh, he’s alive. It’s alive, it’s alive. It’s alive. In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God.
[background roaring sounds]
ER: “King Kong.”
Man: Well, Denham, the airplanes got him.
Carl Denham: Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.
ER: “The Wolf Man.”
Man: I’m sick of the whole thing. I’m going to get out of here.
Woman: Whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives, becomes werewolf himself.
ER: “The Blob.”
Man: Hey, who’s in the store, huh?
Man: There’s nobody in here but us monsters.
Man: Damn, [inaudible 2:14] .
George: Now let’s have it Steve, what about this monster story of yours?
ER: ’80s gems like “Gremlins.”
Billy: Has it got a name, Dad?
Randall: Yeah, Mogwai. I don’t know, some Chinese word.
George: Which, yeah, you guessed it. Mogwai means monster in Cantonese. “Alien.”
Hudson: That’s it, man. Game over, man. It’s game over.
George: “The Fly.”
Woman: No, be afraid. Be very afraid.
ER: Or trending like “Stranger Things.”
Eleven: I’m a monster.
Finn: No, no, El, you’re not the monster. You saved me. Do you understand? You saved me.
ER: “A Quiet Place.”
Woman: Who are we, if we can’t protect them? We have to protect them.
[high pitched whine]
ER: And of course, the haunting and gory of them all, “Monsters, Inc.”
Sully: Hey, Mike, this might sound crazy, but I don’t think that kid’s dangerous.
Mike: Abominable. [laughs] Can you believe that? Do you I look abominable to you? Snow cone?
Mike: No, no, no. Don’t worry. It’s lemon.
ER: These stories draw something out of us. There’s an intuitive draw to the monster because of the fundamental fear of ourselves. There’s more, though. Etymologically, and in the proper use of the word, literally, literally, we are monsters, in so far as we reveal. Monsters are things that display, show, and open up the truth. Monsters literally show, they demonstrate otherwise obfuscated realities.
The word comes from the Latin monstro. We have religious and sacramental uses for the word, too. Eucharistic Christian practices use a monstrance. It’s an object presented on an altar or in a tabernacle for veneration and devotional practice. It contains and holds the Eucharistic host as a means of revealing grace and spiritual truth.
And if my guest today is also a monster, it’s in that more positive usage of revealing and demonstrating beauty and goodness and truth, particularly in the world of 20th century literature. Ralph C Wood has served as university Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University since 1998, and taught at Wake Forest University prior to that.
He is an expert on 19th and 20th century lit, especially at the intersection of Christianity and secularity. He is author and editor of many books and articles, including “Tolkien Among Moderns,” “Chesterton ‑‑ The Nightmare Goodness of God,” “Literature and Theology.” “Flannery O’Conner and the Christ‑Haunted South,” “The Gospel According to Tolkien,” “Comedy of Redemption ‑‑ Christian Faith and Comic Vision” in O’Connor, Percy, Updike, and De Vries.
He was kind enough to welcome me into his then two‑story office, filled with 7,000 books, a mezzanine level with stacks of everything. Yes, I said 7,000 books, with a mezzanine level. As he puts it, it had everything from Plato to NATO. Vaulted ceilings, tall windows that inspire you with the broad Texas sky above Baylor’s Live Oak Groves. Poetic, huh? More than you know.
I hope you enjoy this time with the wonderfully monstrous Ralph Wood. God bless him.
RW: My love of books didn’t come up early. I was not a nerdish book reader when I was in school. I grew up on a horse, [laughs] in Eastern Texas. The moment school was out in the afternoon, I was on a horseback. I’m thankful for that because I’ve gotten real acquaintance with the animal world.
Living out in the countryside, and riding aboard a 1,200 pounds of horse flesh at full speed, bareback, is one of life’s great pleasures. I began to be a reader only in college but only because they had really, really good teachers. I saw that English was the major I should be headed toward because there was where the thought was occurring in my little campus in Eastern Texas.
There says the best thinkers on campus were also English profs. I had the great good fortune of having a Roman Catholic teacher, in a little school where he was the only Catholic member of the faculty. Through him, I began to love books, began to read them, and not simply as aesthetic objects or instances of this or that cultural pattern, but for their impingement upon the moral life and the religious life.
He never used them as a pretext for sermonizing or antagonizing, but it was pretty clear if you read those texts deeply, your life is going to be transformed by them. I began to read and to want to read more, and have been doing so ever since. To quote the Psalmist, “The lines of my life have fallen in pleasant places,” this being one of the most pleasant.
ER: We live in an era where reading is under threat, or at least people like to complain about that. Ralph points out that we are in fact always reading. It’s the subject matter, substance, and depth of content of the words. That’s what’s in question. As a man of literature, Ralph talks about the importance of developing the readerly trait of sustained imaginative sympathy.
It’s an attitude or disposition of one’s intellectual character, the ability to pay close attention, to follow a plot or argument, to appreciate the unending complexity of life, ideas, and human experience. You might also consider it the purpose or telos of a good reader, at least one expression of that purpose. A good reader has sustained imaginative sympathy.
Well, how to form ourselves and our children into better readers then.
RW: The first recommendation is simply [laughs] to become a reader as such. You may remember, Alistair Cooke was the host for Mystery Theater on PBS for years and years. A British emigre, he said frighteningly that by the end of this 21st century, reading will be as quaint as hand quilting, a kind of strange hobby that a very few people will pursue.
Now, I’ve learned to be careful about that kind of doomsday prediction because my students are reading all the time, but they’re reading messages that can be contained in 42 characters. They’re reading tweets, and therefore, they are losing the capacity, if they ever had it, of what I would call sustained imaginative sympathy, or simply, this is the power to follow a complex argument, a complex plot.
The first way to overcome that is to turn off the iPhone, to get rid of background noise, to run off your roommate if roommate chatters, and learn to dwell in solitude. Reading is a solitary act. That isn’t always. You could have reading groups, of course. Couples often read to each other, parents read to children, but on the whole, reading is something one does in one’s aloneness.
That’s the first thing. Just become readers. Journalism is a good place to begin. Read a good newspaper. By that, I mean one that has not only the content of the world’s major happenings, but it’s written at a level of high literary excellence. The “New York Times,” for example, is one of those. Begin with that, and go from there to good journals.
“The Atlantic,” for example, “Harper’s,” for example, “The Criterion,” for example, on the list goes. The new Criterion is now called…
RW: One begins, I think, at the level of serious journalism where one becomes aware of the world of books, and ideas and the imagination. Thereby, one can ease into other kind of reading. For example, I’m teaching CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters right now. My students, of course, can really devour it because they are already on the same page with me.
But I’ve had the experience in teaching that book in certain churches where lay people, I don’t mean mentally limited lay people. I remember, for example, a dentist say, “I just cannot read this stuff. It is too complex for me.” What he really meant was, I am used to dealing in things that have obvious, and direct, and immediate conclusions. Is there a cavity in that tooth when I look at it on an X‑ray?
Well, he’s been trained, of course, very sophisticated, but he can’t transfer that unimaginative world where you have to create images for yourself, in your own mind. He can’t transfer from that world to the world of books, and above all, imaginative books. There’s nothing wrong with beginning with children’s books. Wind of the Willows is a very, great book.
The Velveteen Rabbit is a book that adults can read. The Hobbit is a book that one can begin with in reading Tolkien, “The Narnia Chronicles,” for example, so don’t be convinced you have to begin at the top. Begin at the bottom, begin like a little child, as one shall lead them. Then, of course, go from there to Lewis’ more complex works, to Tolkien’s more complex work.
Above all, learn to read poetry. Poetry was once, I’m sure you know, the common pastime of every educated person. It’s now almost entirely lost. I’m concerned to teach my students how to read poetry. It’s not difficult. You simply learn the basics scansions, you learn the meaning of metaphor and simile, you learn what accent and stress is. You learn the patterns of rhyme and meter, learn the poetic forms.
Once you learn that, then you’ll find poetry in some ways more attractive than prose because it’s the highest of literary forms. Poetry was, of course, once sung, and are hymns still of cause sing poetry. That’s a good way, by the way, to become a reader of a serious kind, and that is to think about the hymns that you’re singing.
If you are lucky enough to be in a church that sings the great hymns, and are not a victim of what I call, the holy overhead projector, which flashes onto the screen, anneal trivialities that don’t engender imaginative life.
If you sing “Love Divine, all Loves Excelling, Joy from Heaven to Earth Come Down,” and Wesley’s other great hymns, or you sing, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” maybe the greatest hymn in the Christian tradition, think about what Isaac Watts is saying there, go to Watts’ other hymns.
Then you will have an imaginative life already born in the church’s own worship, so that your life will be enriched by singing poetry and fathoming poetry.
ER: I’ve heard this attributed to many authors, but at the very least Tolkien and Maurice Sendak and more recently, Neil Gaiman, saying, “There’s no such thing as books for children,” per se, “There’s just books for people.”
RW: That’s right. Any book that truly engages a child’s mind, will also engage an adult mind. D.H. Lawrence, for example, wrote very, great children’s poetry. Most people don’t know it. I go and read it. [laughs] It’s excellent, it’s excellent.
ER: Ralph Wood has spent most of his career, working on the so‑called Catholic writers of the 20th Century, usually referring to a short list of British and American writers, many of them converts to Christianity from modern secularism. You’ve got GK Chesterton, JRR Tolkien, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Mariel Sparks, Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, even John Kennedy Toole, author of the hilarious and insane Confederacy of Dunces.
These authors have exerted unusual force of influence over 20th century narrative fiction, and as a result, we find the echoes of their imagination everywhere. They’re also full of downright odd, ridiculous and sometimes grotesque and Gothic characters. Take Ignatius J Reilly of Confederacy of Dunces. Walker Percy described this hotdog‑eating, bus‑riding, movie‑going maniac as “Slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.”
Or to use an old Russian orthodox monastic category, he’s a holy fool, so utterly weird and out of place. You start to wonder, who’s seen the world right, this glaring oddball or the world around him who so easily recoils and rejects him, and “receives him not”? I asked Ralph about what we can learn from the Catholic writers, he so intimately knows and studies.
He started by pointing out that until the 20 century, most American writers were more children of enlightenment and modern American individualism than they were of Christianity.
RW: Hey, that’s a superb question. What is there about Catholic writers that makes them so good? Why are there so many more of them than Protestant writers of an imminent kind? I’d like to point out that prior to Flannery O’Connor, this nation which Chesterton famously defined as a nation with the soul of a church, had produced no really major Christian writer.
All of our writers have been on the edge of Christianity, often had they been much more critical of it than in any sense, seeking to embody it. You think of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Poe, Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Henry James. All of those figures are great writers. We now have an American tradition equal in some ways to the British, at least in the modern period.
But they’re all having to stand at a critical distance from Christianity because… you know an essay I’ve written with Stanley Hauerwas, the church in America has been so closely allied with the project of the nation that the two really had no great distance critically between them, so that whatever the state did, the church largely endorsed.
Now, that of course came apart at the time of the Civil War, and has, of course, increasingly come apart in our time. Catholics, by contrast, have had the advantage of being outsiders. This has not been a Catholic country, it’s been a Protestant country, and what is more, an enlightenment, Protestant country.
Catholics have thus had the advantage, oddly enough, of being on the periphery of American culture and not being at the center. But more than that, this is the term I like for my students to get a hold on, Catholics have a tremendous advantage over us Protestants in having at the core of Catholic faith and worship, the sacramental imagination.
That’s a large, and can be very woolly term, easily misused. At its core, it means that just as in the Eucharist, this broken bread is Christ broken body, and just as in the cup poured out for our salvation, that wine is Christ’s spilled blood.
Once you say that and thus believe in the real presence in the Eucharist. Once you say that baptism is not simply my profession of faith made public to the world but the church’s gift to us, so that we are thereby incorporated into the body of Christ, by being buried in a very watery grave, being raised up in the newness of life.
Once you come to worship, and behave, and think, and act sacramentally, the world itself is a book of analogies. Of course, scripture itself becomes immensely enriched. Scripture is never to be read really literally, but with all of its spiritual, and allegorical, and moral depth of meaning. I’m glad to see that in our time, evangelicals are recovering that sacramental imagination because without it, we’re doomed.
What we get is a very barren kind of thing that leads to the praise songs. Quite honestly, look how bad much art is in the evangelical world. Look at the way many of our churches evoke no sense of reverence whatsoever because it’s just a preaching barn, many Protestant churches are.
The Catholics have this sacramental imagination that imbues their architecture, their art, their music, their liturgy, and not least of all, their literature. Hence the great productivity of Catholic tradition in my world, for literary purposes.
ER: Stay tuned. After the break, Ralph Wood unveils even more on monsters, but also the hope we have of waking from our worst nightmares.
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ER: The monstrosity we find in the 20th century Catholic writers is often alarming and grotesque. It’s not cleansed, scrubbed, edited, or whitewashed. Think of Tolkien’s Orcs and the brutality of dominion gone wrong, or think of O’Connor’s backwards profits, the wicked recipients of grace or the misfit of a good man is hard to find in his admission that, “Jesus has thrown everything off balance.”
Walker Percy’s expression of unknown and un‑revealed monstrosity in his wonderful “Lost in the Cosmos.” Graham Greene’s exploration of fear and brutality. Of course, the context for all of this is that they are writing in the trenches of likely the bloodiest century in the history of the world.
It’s impossible to get a precise number, but historians estimate somewhere between 167 million and 225 million people died from some form of collective violence in the 20th century alone. As these authors wrote into their fictional characters, a certain monstrosity, some of it was grotesque by a need for a fit to the darkness and ashes that have covered the 20th century.
You might compare maybe the ultimate monster flick Godzilla originally, Gojira in Japanese. Gojira is actually a Japanese portmanteau of words for gorilla and whale. It’s like a biblical Leviathan. Made in post‑war Japan in 1954, Godzilla is a creature that emerges from the murky radioactive Pacific Ocean, in the aftermath of our own nuclear experimentation and utter destruction of the atomic bomb.
The monster is a horror of humanity’s own making. Maybe we’re ultimately most afraid of ourselves and each other. The additive grace of that monstrosity is that not all that is monstrous is evil. The Christian sacramental imagination of a writer, full as it is with that same sustained imaginative sympathy from earlier, reveals also what goodness might emerge from the nightmare.
RW: What can we learn from these important writers, who in their different ways, Chesterton, O’Connor, Percy, want to envision our humanity as monstrous in the deepest sense of that word? Of course, it has, as its basic premise, that we are not simply creatures of nature.
We’re not simply animals. We’re animals with a difference. Animals, in general, don’t have nervous breakdowns. [laughs] Animals don’t smoke or drink. [laughs] They can play but they can’t tell jokes. They could be happy, but not at the depth or the level of human beings.
Human beings by being made in God’s image, our basic Christian doctrine of our humanity, means that we’re meant to be not creatures who have found ourselves at home in a habitat. My cat is very happy when he’s well fed, and he has a warm place to sleep, and a warm lap to nap in. We’re not happy when those things happen.
They can be automates to our happiness, but our happiness has to be more than any animal happiness. Because of our fallen refusal to find our happiness in God, to know Him and enjoy Him forever, and therefore to know our neighbors and enjoy them forever, we fall away from that basic command given to us at the beginning. We are a profoundly unhappy creature. We are creatures who are miserable.
We are in the condition of sin. We are lost. We’re wandering. We’re astray. We’re alienated. That makes us monstrous. [laughs] It makes us monstrous, even when we look well dressed, well quaffed, well adjusted, successful, in all the terms the world can measure those things by. There’s a secret ache at the core of our human condition because we’re fallen.
Of course, that ache is as Augustine defined it in the fourth century. Our hearts are restless because they’re meant to rest in God, but have become unquiet in alienation from God. That’s enough to make us into monstrous characters who’ve done monstrous things.
As we were saying earlier, this is the age of ashes, of both the Nazi furnaces, and of the Gulag, and of the Chinese work camps and of My Lai, and of, not least of all, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, the ashes we, good guys, created. Not to depict man therefore as a monster is to be unfaithful to what is.
These writers are all leading with human depravity in ways that you can’t miss. However, anybody can describe human misery. You can simply go with your camera into any inner city, and start photographing all the street people, and the people who are addicted to all kinds of drugs, who’ve talked to themselves all the time, etc. Anybody can do that.
Christian writers want to do that, however, by showing that that monstrosity has another side. Monstrous comes from the Latin root monstro, which means to show or display in a way that makes things stand out. We are creatures who are meant to stand out from the merely natural order. The word Anthropos, the Greek word for a human, means the upward looking one.
We’re the only animal that doesn’t stare down at the ground. We don’t derive our being from the earth, but from what is in the earth that pulls us beyond the earth. A truly Christian art whether it be poetry, fiction, drama, you name it, is going to always have hints that this evil monstrosity is supposed to issue in a good monstrosity.
I like to quote Flannery O’Connor, though no one’s been able to trace down this quote. She does a wonderful riff on John’s Gospel when she says, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” [laughs] I like to tell students, we’re odd ones. I like Georgian Lindbeck saying, “By our nature we are eccentric. We’re off‑center.”
The world has its own center, fallen, lost, though many ways good. Christians have a different center. Christ is our center. That makes us stand out if we’re faithful in ways that are odd. That’s who the saints are. The Saints are the odd lads, who have stood out from society, cultures they would have been predicted to conform to.”
All the writers that I deal with, have that other vision of man, the good monster, and not simply the evil monster. Flannery O’Connor fiction is grotesque. That’s her favorite word. It’s grotesque because she says, “I regard these strange backwards prophets. These un‑ordained, unwashed, self‑taught preachers as my heroes, because they’re onto that which the modern world would like to forget, God, the Kingdom of God, Christ.”
She has a character say, “I don’t preach nothing but Christ, and Him nailed.” [laughs] That’s a wonderful paraphrase of Paul. They all do that in radically different ways. Chesterton does it by trying to be happy, glorious, wondrous comedy of human existence. He has an aphorism you may know. He says, “Seriousness is the most natural thing.”
He says, “It flows out of us like water from a fetid pool. Laughter,” he says, “by contrast is a leap. It requires us to jump out of our animal condition and our fallen condition, into the transcended world of God’s own presence.”
His splendid aphorism is this, he says, “Satan, therefore, fell by his gravity.” [laughs] “Not just his Newtonian weight, of which he had none, but his super seriousness. Sin, at its core, is taking ourselves too seriously. Believing that the world centers around us, focusing our lives on ourselves.”
Then he adds a splendid, a kind of codicil to that will. “And the un‑fallen angels still fly because they take themselves so lightly.” Chesterton’s fiction has about it that wonderful lightness, comedy, paradox of the Christian faith. He defines paradox wonderfully. “Paradox,” he says, “is truth standing on its head and waving its legs to get our attention. It’s truth upside down.”
Of course, that’s what the Kingdom is, the Kingdom is the world turned upside down. But what many people have missed in Chesterton, what I try to recover in my recent book on him, is the dark side. A lot of people can dismiss him. Oh, he’s just the jokester. He’s God’s big fat clown, and we don’t have to take him seriously.
But I began to look, and I began to see that the single trope, the governing metaphor that occurs throughout Chesterton is nightmare. Of course, nightmare is an encounter with horror. It’s to be wakened in the middle of the night screaming. It is to have visions of a world coming apart. It, of course, has the image of being hagridden, of being preyed upon by witches, whether of the male or female variety.
What he does in his best fiction is to confront us with that nightmare horror, especially in his best work, most difficult but still most important, The Man Called Thursday. I have devoted a whole chapter to that. What I’m trying to do in that book is to help Christians, by the way, of the kind you describe, the thoughtful Christian layperson. By the way, I’m a layperson. I’m not ordained.
I haven’t found anybody to lay hands on me. [laughs] What he does, what happens in the past is you get what I call the Chestertonian acolytes, those who think he never thought, said, or did one thing bad, and thus create out of him what I think is clearly an idol. But on the other hand, what I call his culture despisers, those who think he was just a guy who came out with a clever quip every time he had to face a difficulty.
I try to show neither side has it right. Both sides need therefore to see the way in which he must be taken seriously, and not either canonized as a pseudo‑saint, nor vilified as a stupid Christian villain.
ER: Yeah. Let’s go from the nightmare to the morning. You gave your book on Chesterton the title The Nightmare Goodness of God. Is there any hope of waking up from this nightmare?
RW: Are you’re asking, again, what is the goodness inherit in the nightmare? Because nightmares by definition are that which you don’t want to have.
The goodness, of course, is that the nightmare is not finally real. He, of course, there, Chesterton is a thorough going Augustinian who understands that evil is the privation of the good, the absence of the good, the twisting, the perversion of the good, and so in the deepest sense doesn’t truly exist. It does horrors, of course, in the world, because it can assume all kinds of demonic, destructive forms.
But the only thing that finally exists is the goodness of God. He shows that forth in a variety of unusual ways that give us hope. In the work I think that will last perhaps as his most important poem for sure is called the “Ballad of the White Horse.” I would like to read what is the light motif that runs through this epic poem about a battle that King Alfred fought against the invading Danes in, I forget, 9th, 10th centuries.
This is the word that comes from a vision he has of the Virgin Mary. She says to him, “I tell you naught for your comfort. Yea, naught for your desire, save that the sky grows darker yet, and the sea rises higher. Night shall be thrice night over you, and heaven an iron cope. Do you have joy without a cause? Yea, faith without a hope?”
That’s a deep and very dark paradox where the Blessed Virgin is saying to King Alfred that things are going to get worse. The tide will rise higher. The world will grow darker. Of course, Chesterton died in 1936. He saw the world going rapidly darker, as Hitler had already risen to power. Thank God he didn’t see the real darkness.
Christians don’t live on the hope that things are going to get better. If we live by that hope, we might quote St. Paul, “We of all men are most hopeless.” Things are not going to get better. The trajectory of history is not upward, onward, progressive, but always an undulating hope, followed by loss of hope, followed by new hope, etc.
Until, of course, finally, the end comes where there shall be what St. Paul calls hope beyond hope. The hope held out by these writers is precisely that Paul lying hope, that when earthly hopes fail, as they inevitably will, we’re all going to die. As Mark Twain famously said, “Life is a losing proposition.” [laughs] How do we live in the meantime? How do we live in the meantime?
We live with that hope that lies beyond what Tolkien calls the walls of the world. The hope that draws us forward because death has already been conquered. The cross has already defeated the devil. But of course, Karl Barth says the devil has this awful remaining power, as he thrashes his horrible dragon tail back and across the face of history.
Barth likens it, for example, to a clock, that in its pendulum swings from one extreme to other finally makes its last forward movement, and then slowly and gradually swings less and less to a final halt. We’re living in that time, he says, between the final tock of history, which came in the Resurrection, and final conclusion, which of course is in the Parousia, the Return.
We live in that time not on the one hand desperation that makes us do terribly evil things, answering evil with evil, but neither do we live in the false complacency, oh well, it will all turn out in the end. I don’t have to worry about resisting evil, much less doing good. That’s the kind of hope all of these writers, O’Connor, Percy, CS Lewis, Chesterton all hold out in very different ways, admittedly.
But that, as I see it, is the basically Christian vision that they all subscribe to, but by way of Christian tradition. That’s what’s so important. Those are all Catholics, every one of those, except Lewis, who was an Anglo‑Catholic. They have that sacramental imagination that can discern the signs of the times.
That can read into historical events, and can read natural occurrences, can read physical objects as never meaning one thing and one thing only, but having a variety of meanings, both good and ill, and not to avoid the questions.
My best teachers were those who really pushed my nose into the cold snows of modern horror. That’s my point. Unless you face the horror, that’s what the cross is, the ultimately horrible event, that we call, as Elliot says, Good Friday, because God made it good.
Not only in the Resurrection, but of course in calling us to live out the life of the cross, being willing to die without earthly hope, but in the confidence of hope beyond hope.
ER: The Table Audio is host and produced by me, Evan Rosa, and is a resource of the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is sponsored by generous grants by the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Region Trust, and the Blankemeyer Foundation.
Theme music by the Brilliance. Additional scoring in this episode by Una and the Sound. Production and engineering by the Narrativo Group. More at narrativogroup.com. Edited and mixed by TJ Hester.
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