Percy’s Love in the Ruins: A Dystopia for Our Time

Note: This piece was originally written in September 2016, in the run-up to that year’s U.S. national election.

The 1970s have a curious aura, especially to those of us born in the early 1980s. Not quite far enough before our time to feel like “history,” Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and all the associated malaise were so much a part of our parents’ formative experience that they taste to us rather of a half-remembered bad dream—especially given the relative peace and prosperity we enjoyed throughout childhood. Perhaps it is only natural, then, to associate that 70s vibe with our own grave misgivings about the present.

Facing as we do a national election between a habitual liar under investigation by the FBI (is anyone more Nixonian than Mrs. Clinton?) and a much-married misogynist, racist, and paragon of petty machismo, we see a strong political overlap between the two eras. The nausea goes much deeper too—into sex, race, religion, and society itself. All around, our souls give way, yet no solution presents itself. The exhaustion is palpable, even papered over as it continues to be by our blithe consumption and entertainment.

Into such troubled times, the prophets of old spoke even greater trouble. “On account of you, Zion will be plowed as a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the temple will become high places of a forest.”[1] This indicts us just as much as it happens to us. Perhaps the prophet we need to hear thunder today is the unlikeliest of anointed men—nearly three decades dead and always unassuming in his own time.

Walker Percy, Louisiana novelist and essayist, keenly felt the dislocation of man in the modern age, and set his face toward exploring and explaining that pain in nearly everything he wrote. In Percy’s own telling, a serious novelist (one as much concerned with plumbing the depths of existence as with telling a good story) is by nature a sort of prophet:

“Since true prophets, i.e., men called by God to communicate something urgent to other men, are currently in short supply, the novelist may perform a quasi-prophetic function. Like the prophet, his news is generally bad. Unlike the prophet, whose mouth has been purified by a burning coal, the novelist’s art is often bad, too…. Like the prophet, he may find himself in radical disagreement with his fellow countrymen. Unlike the prophet, he does not generally get killed. More often, he is ignored.”[2]

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Honor Codes and Celebrity Woes

A musing from several years ago.

When is honor dishonorable?

A major subject of discussion in the American evangelical scene over the past several years has been the presence and influence of certain “celebrity pastors”. Much has been written on whether well-known personalities in Christian ministry qualify as “celebrities” or merely “public figures”—whether they gain notoriety for faithfulness and accomplishments or whether they seek fame and power and use the Church as their platform. A helpful roundup of these thoughts is available here (ironically enough, a panel discussion of well-known pastors in front of a crowd of 7,000).

There are other issues underneath this general discussion, notably the increasing lack of oversight and accountability for famous pastors and speakers. Carl Trueman (who appears on the panel mentioned above) writes incisively about a few flare-ups of this phenomenon here (N.b.: Since writing this in 2013, the list of fallen Christian celebrities has sadly grown longer and longer).

Most of what I hear on the subject focuses on three areas in particular 1) the aforementioned accountability issues, 2) the seeping into the Church of the general celebrity culture of the contemporary West, or 3) the role of mass and social media in “feeding the beast”. What if, perhaps, there was something else operating in the shadows here? Something more primal, more dangerous, because it comes from within?

Honor Codes and Christ
One of our church elders (who also happens to be a professor of English literature) and I were talking about the prevalence of honor codes in world literature. He noted that, despite surface differences, shame/honor cultures typically function by elevating the social standing of men who conform to a given culture’s ideal of manhood and shielding those who rise from dishonor or any damage to their reputation. Christianity, he argued, subverts that model in the person of Christ—He receives the highest honor (being seated at the right hand of the Father and receiving worship from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation forever) through being subjected to the highest dishonor this life could muster (emptying Himself, betrayal by friends, false accusation, public humiliation, execution as a criminal). That radical perspective shift upends the notions of manhood, leadership, and power in the Church, giving Christians a framework by which humility, tenderness, patience, etc. become markers of strength rather than weakness.

The Code Redeemed in the Church
In a sense, Paul expounds this redeemed code of honor in his description of the character of elders/overseers in the Church: “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:2-7).

To qualify as a leader in the Church, a man must be recognized as holding to the standards to which all believing men should aspire—pastors and elders are not called to be a breed of theological übermenschen, but rather faithful men who lead others by teaching and example to greater Christ-likeness so that the witness of the Gospel may be upheld and spread. Paul says as much in introducing this list of qualities: ”It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do” (1 Tim. 3:1).

Double Honor
Even so, this is not an easy calling, and Satan desires the distortion and downfall of God’s good plan for Church leadership. For this reason, Paul shares (later in the same letter), that “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). He suggests that those who labor in the Word for the benefit of the body should be compensated for their work (5:18), and that criticism and accusation against them should be weighed carefully (5:19).

It is right and good that we should honor and, in some measure, elevate those who serve the Church well. Like cream, they rise because of their obedience and perseverance over the long haul. Perhaps they even gain notoriety beyond their local church and community through media transmission of their teaching. Though it is easier to gain a wide audience through today’s technology, this goes all the way back to the beginning of the Church in that its leaders often wrote widely and impacted wide swaths of the population. The Church Fathers, and later the Reformers, were something of “celebrity pastors” in their own day, and their writings continue to wield influence. Again, to be a celebrated teacher of God’s Word is not inherently problematic, and the Church past and present has benefitted through the very public ministries of some men.

The Code Resurgent
Perhaps this is where we swerve. All it takes for the old pagan code of honor to overtake this righteous double honor is the most natural of human weaknesses—pride. As soon as the man who gains fame from ministry begins to believe that this condition arises from his work rather than the Lord’s, he will chafe against any attempt to counsel or correct him. When other godly leaders pointing out his errors or character flaws, he sees it not as loving reproof but an affront to his reputation. To save face, he may surround himself with yes-men and go to great lengths to remove himself from those who would correct him. From there, it is a short road to disaster, for the celebrated man, his church, and the witness of the Church of Jesus Christ around the world.

Our enemy is endlessly creative in the ways he can bring this to bear to the ruin of the Gospel. For some, he delights in allowing them to faceplant into sexual or financial sin that anyone who was listening to godly counsel would have fled long before it consumed him. For others, he seeks to have them continue in authority but tempts them through their pride to teach false doctrine and lead many thousands astray from Christ. Most dangerously (and most germane to the issue at hand within the evangelical and Reformed communities), he seeks to get believers to separate the life and doctrine of public teachers, so that we accept many failings so long as their words retain the truth of Scripture. In such cases, the ripple effects of unaccountable leadership trickle down to cripple churches with leaders who answer only to their own egos.

The Corrective: Biblical Authority
The shame/honor dynamic is deeply embedded in our sinful hearts, and it is always ready to creep back into the Church. This is why, almost in the same breath as he urges honor for Gospel ministers, Paul minces no words to ensure that honor is well checked: “[Elders] who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality” (2 Tim. 5:20-21). The Lord knows that men, even His chosen redeemed, are sinful and would abuse the honor given them to make much of themselves at the expense of Christ and His Church. Therefore, He establishes 1) a plurality of elders to keep the whole church in submission to God and prevent any one man from co-opting a local church, and 2) a firm standard to rein in those who go too far.

Public ministry is a privilege, but it can become a precipice without the oversight of faithful elders. Any man given a broad platform to teach and preach ought to be exceedingly careful to submit to the authority within his local church, to men who know him and his proclivities and who will not hesitate to strike loving blows upon his sinful heart when necessary. To step out from under that umbrella is to cross the threshold from public figure to “celebrity”—without authority over you, you are left unprotected from both the enemy’s snares and the destructive capacity of your own heart.

As to those of us in the pews who are in no danger of becoming publicly known pastors, what is our responsibility in this? First, we should be shrewd in accepting teaching from any “celebrity pastor” and “test the spirits,” checking their words and  by the Word and being wary of any who are not fully submissive to the elders of their local church. Second, we should submit ourselves to the Word and elect our  own pastors and elders with great discernment. As Paul warns, “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin” (1 Tim. 5:22). To exercise that level of care and concern for sake of the Gospel and its teachers is honor indeed.

Walker Percy Weekend

You see the pig first.

Smoked and shimmering in all his suckling glory, he leads the way into a church hall set up for a meal considerably more lavish than your average dinner on the grounds. The crowd eases in a few at a time, shaking out their umbrellas, glazed with the sticky cool of a summer night’s rain. As they descend on the spread, the gears of conversation engage (with a little help from the wine) and old friends and former strangers talk long into the night, humidity and horseflies not withstanding.

All this Louisiana cuisine and conviviality could be the scene of a birthday party, anniversary, or graduation. The guest of honor is not here, though, having died 26 years hence. Even so, it was his 100th birthday, and so we came. From all over, we came to St. Francisville for the third Walker Percy Weekend.

Must this not be what every author dreams of? Posthumous recognition such that when people who have been touched and challenged by your work come together to remember you, it is not in self-important tut-tutting about your cultural impact but simply to make merry and rejoice that you wrote.

Between the freely flowing bourbon and the mountain of mudbugs on Saturday night, it just might have been possible to forget this was a literary event (“conference” isn’t quite a fit), but the superb panels by friends and family and Percy scholars from universities around the country, with lots of questions and comments from the crowd, brought out the best for readers. Everything from the collapse of the political center to the depths of despair in Dostoevsky to Springsteen (yes, that one) was on offer. Even the depth of discussion over cocktails and crawfish was a sight to behold.

The civic spirit of this little town in West Feliciana was really on display, too. If the banners lining Ferdinand Street proclaiming “We Love It Here!” were so much boosterism, nothing in the joyful hospitality of the locals I met gave it away. They put on the dog for us all, opening homes, churches, shops and public spaces in one long roving feast for body, mind, and spirit.

I think Walker would be proud of his fellow Louisianians, and probably more than a little annoyed at being the center of attention. By God’s extravagant grace, in this little corner of “the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world” all was well for a few days. The troubles Percy saw so clearly tearing us apart could melt away, all suffused in the glow of summer sweat and steam from a trailer vat of boiling crustaceans.

 

The Revelation of Literature: A Review of Laurus

I am only  recently making forays into Russian Literature. For a would-be novelist, this is rather embarrassing—like an aspiring chef finding himself unable to pull off grilled cheese.

Unlike that grilled cheese, though (to undo this clunky metaphor) Russian fiction can be long, dense, and difficult to master—especially for the 7,040,000,000 of us who don’t understand Russian. Literature and language are so intertwined that even the best of translations have difficulty capturing the true measure of a story.

Even so, with all the best “self-improvement” motivations in gear, I picked up Crime and Punishment last year. It was beautiful, comprehensible, engaging, moving, and instructive. Dostoevsky proved less to be an impediment to my literary coming of age than a gateway drug.

What the Russian people have to offer the world of ideas and story (such despair, such hope!) was brought home to me, not in one of the canonical tomes, but in a practically brand new work*: Laurus—a novel by Eugene Vodolazkin, an expert in medieval Russian hisLaurustory and folklore at Pushkin House (the Institute of Russian Literature) in St. Petersburg.

The story seems to flow out of Vodolazkin’s work, effectively illuminating the experience of the 15th century with a modern idiom. His language is as intentional as it is playful, swinging effortlessly from archaic spellings through straight narration to silly modern slang. This fits the journey of Arseny (whose name changes three times with the phases of his life, finally arriving at Laurus) from cradle to grave, which moves along by leaping back and forth through time (of which more below).

Despite exploring sin and pain deeply (for how else can we see glory aright?), this is a tasteful work. A few scenes pull no punches in describing medieval filth and horror, but they feel necessary. Overall, Vodolazkin relies on the power of the story to jolt readers, rather than foul language and overindulgence in the grotesque.

What shines in both the words and the story is a voice eerily absent from the world of modern literature—sincere faith. The Orthodoxy of Laurus isn’t merely attached to a character or added for “color”, but suffuses the entire work because it is real. The people of this book are, like the rest of us, sinners, but through God’s mercy, many are saints. Most are earthy, some insufferably pious, and a few are wicked, but they all live under the shadow of the Almighty. In this world, the glow of icons by candlelight is meant to inspire, and a Holy Fool throwing rocks at invisible demons is to be expected.

A few early scenes hint at the spiritual flavor of the whole. His parents having died of the plague, Arseny learns the ways of the world from Christofer, his grandfather.  Christofer is an herbalist (essentially a doctor for that era), and he passes his trade to his grandson.

“Christofer did not exactly believe in herbs, more likely he believed God’s help would come, through any herb, for a specific matter. Just as that help comes through people. Both are but instruments. He did not ponder why each of the herbs he knew was associated with strictly defined qualities; he considered that question frivolous. Christofer understood Who had established that association, and that was all he needed to know.”

And:

“Along the way home, they always gathered pods from the herb known as river crossing, which repelled snakes.

Put a seed in your mouth and water will part, Christofer once said.

It will part? asked Arseny, serious.

With prayer it will part. Christofer began to feel awkward. Everything is about prayer after all.

Well, then why do you need that seed? The boy lifted his head and saw Christofer was smiling.”

The way time moves (or doesn’t) in Laurus is reminiscent of Slaughterhouse-Five, with Arseny “unstuck” in time. Whereas Vonnegut’s clock-play evokes an underlying banality to life, what Vodolazkin achieves is more akin to prophecy—unfolding reality with a rising spiral of metaphysics.

Events and themes seem to reverberate through the book and beyond. What occurs is never in isolation from everything else in the story, but reaches across time and space to give significance to what comes before and after. Like biblical prophecies, which so often have immediate, intermediate, and ultimate fulfillments as they ripple out from their proclamation, the phases of Arseny’s story rhyme, often with repeated phrases and mirrored scenes. For example, early in the book, Arseny sees his older self staring back at him through a fire; the same few paragraphs are retold from the perspective of the old man some 200 pages later, as they behold one another and weep together.

The one constant in time within the story is writing. Characters are constantly quoting Scripture, things of importance are always written down, and Arseny reads and re-reads a few key texts and the manuscripts his grandfather had scribbled into pieces of birch bark.

“For Christofer, the written word seemed to regulate the world. Stop its fluctuations. Prevent notions from eroding. This is why Cristofer’s sphere of interest was so broad. According to the writer’s thinking, that sphere should correspond to the world’s breadth…Cristofer understood that the written word would always remain that way. No matter what happened later, once it had been written, the word had already occurred.”

The story contains such a wealth of themes that this brief discussion can only scratch the surface. I am not offering a plot summary, because to do so would, I think detract from the experience of reading. Like all truly great books, its value is so much more than the plot (“spoilers” would make it no less worth your time), but it is better taken in stride than explained.

This tips my hand, of course. It is easy to be overcome by the joy of a freshly discovered work of art, but I would be shocked if Laurus is not still around on shelves and in literature classes generations from now. Finding this book has done much to encourage me in the good work of pursuing the holy imagination needed to speak to men’s souls with the sharp truth of love.

And there is a broad hunger for this. The sudden and enthusaistic popularity of Vodolazkin’s work seems to have surprised him more than anyone. In one interview, he said that, after finishing the book, he told his wife that he would read it and she would read it and no one else would read it. That was in 2012, before Laurus struck a nerve in Russia and became a best-seller, going on to win that country’s equivalent of the National Book Award.

Thanks to the stellar translation of Lisa C. Hayden, it came to print in English in October 2015. Her feel for the nuance of Vodolazkin’s phrasing makes the reading smooth where it should be smooth and striking where it should be striking (and he speaks and reads English well enough to strongly praise her rendering of his work). I dare say this may become a standard introduction to Russian lit in years to come.

Laurus is a serious work which is nevertheless extremely delightful. This is wholly different from being entertaining. The joys found here come not from exhilarating motion (though there are segments of adventure), but from the savor of fulfillment: complementary scenes, piercingly accurate phrases, redeemed longings, deftly chosen character names. Laurus is self-contained, intact, and deeply satisfying.

Image: Old Salem Bricks, Forsyth County, N.C., December 2015.