A Touchstone of Eloquence and Wisdom
“If Christian dogma is irrelevant to life, to what, in Heaven’s name, is it relevant?—since religious dogma is in fact nothing but a statement of doctrines concerning the nature of life and the universe.” Dorothy L. Sayers wrote these words in her essay “Creed or Chaos?” Almost in direct answer to that question—and to the title of Sayers’s essay—the editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity has assembled the collection at hand, Creed and Culture.
Here is a rich sampling of some of the best essays to appear within that fine periodical during the first ten, precarious years of its existence. For those readers not familiar with Touchstone, it is a Chicago-based magazine edited and written by conservative Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians. The writers and editors are united by allegiance to a common Great Tradition, what C. S. Lewis famously called “mere Christianity”—the body of “belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times”—and together they tackle the issues of divisions with the Church and their meaning, works of great literature, and the ways Christian life is played out (and ought to be played out) within the culture at large in light of Christian dogma.
An early “angel” of Touchstone was the late Russell Kirk, who arranged for some modest funding for the magazine during the early 1990s, and, in time, came to write of it: “In a bent time, Touchstone speaks up courageously for sound doctrine. It does not evade the great questions at issue. Through its pages a conscience speaks to a conscience.” As editor Kushiner states in his introduction to the present collection, it has been the constant endeavor of Touchstone to do just that.
Kirk himself is represented here by his essay “T. S. Eliot on Literary Morals,” an eloquent disquisition upon Eliot’s thoughts on the intersection of literature and ethics as expressed in his three Page Barbour Lectures at the University of Virginia in 1933. “Does literature have a literary end?” asks Kirk, introducing Eliot’s perspective. “Should books be judged by the moral suppositions they implicitly affirm or deny? Do Good and Evil matter? And may the operations of the Evil Spirit (capital letters Eliot’s) be discerned among us in the twentieth century?” Eliot answers in the affirmative to all these questions; and Kirk deftly unpacks those answers in his own short essay, which provides a succinct definition of what Eliot called “the diabolic imagination.” Kirk explains: “Literary decadence commonly is bound up with a general intellectual and moral disorder in a society resulting, presently, in violent social disorder. The decay of literature appears often to result from a rejection of the ancient human endeavor to apprehend a transcendent order in the universe and to live in harmony with that order; for when the myths and the dogmata are discarded, the religious imagination withers.” Words so full of rich wisdom and common sense can sound odd though thoroughly refreshing in the world’s English-speaking cultures, which today honor with prestigious awards such works as Michael Moore’s best-selling Stupid White Men.
Kirk’s essay is one of several on literature that appear in the present volume, which also includes a perceptive essay by Thomas Howard on Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, a fascinating study by James L. Sauer on Felix Salten’s Bambi and the Catholic imagination, and two essays by Steven Faulkner on the state of modern poetry—the significance of poetry’s loss as necessary knowledge within a healthy culture (largely through the work of the modernists and their successors), and the need to recover poetry as a living art for the sake of children. Faulkner concludes with eloquent and true words reminiscent of Kirk and Eliot:
In a chaotic world where our children are pushed to give vent to their desires and indulge their appetites, reading and memorizing poetry can be one way of ordering the soul, of disciplining feeling with form. More than this, poetry evokes wonder, and wonder leads to love, so that child and parent might find their place at the feet of God. As Josef Pieper put it: “Now, as always, the workaday world can be transcended in poetry and the other arts. In the shattering emotion of love, beyond the delusions of sensuality, men continue to find entrance to the still point of the turning world.”
This close intertwining of literature with the state of culture is discussed by James Hitchcock in a manner reminiscent of Christopher Dawson in his essay “Christ and Culture: A Dilemma Reconsidered.” What is culture, he asks? Hitchcock answers his own question pithily and in a manner with which Dawson and Eliot would heartily agree: “Culture is the totality of the life of a people, shaped and guided by their institutions but also to some extent a spontaneous development from the people themselves—their moral and religious beliefs, their social customs, their attitudes towards each other and towards the universe, their sports and games, their community mores, and many other things.” Hitchcock uses this brief but effective definition to develop his point that, except when immediately usable, culture is, in this sense, intolerable to the totalitarian mind because of the danger that people, left to themselves, will insist on being their own potty little selves, go against the wishes of their betters, and produce ideas and movements inimical to the secular oligarch’s august plans for a utopian tomorrow.
Hitchcock sees the role of the Christian in modern society as serving in a role of protector of culture against the ravages of the modernist state, affirming and securing the signal importance of religion within that culture. He wisely sees that this role is not dependent upon politics, but occurs through the salting down of a culture by the individual and the Church standing unabashed and unbought by the Siren-call of the statist.
There are other essays in this collection that tackle matters related to a wide variety of subjects, and all are worth reading time and again—though space prevents my profiling each one. One superb essay is Thomas Howard’s story of his own faith journey from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism. Another is a piece by David Mills—a writer of lively prose who deserves to be more widely known—titled “The Bible Tells Me So,” which advocates ongoing personal Bible study as a path to spiritual orientation. There is something positively reminiscent of C. S. Lewis in certain of Mills’s turns of phrase. For instance: “[I]f we [Christians] tend to talk a lot about sex, we do so because it is the aspect of the inherited Christian moral teaching most directly challenged by our culture and, sadly, by powerful and vocal movements in our own churches. The use of sex is the question of the hour. To accuse orthodox Christians of being obsessed with sex is somewhat like accusing firemen in a city victimized by arsonists of thinking too often about fires.” And, later: “We have all sinned and, from God’s point of view, are not a pretty sight. To think ourselves better than others because we haven’t committed their particular sin is like a town boasting that it has the prettiest toxic waste dump.”
This collection also contains contributions by ethicist Vigen Guroian and the remarkably learned Patrick Henry Reardon, a man steeped thoroughly in the authoritative commentaries of the Bible—and adept at conveying those truths memorably. Other essays cover such topics as the corruption of language within the Church today and the follies of the so-called “Jesus Seminar”—a gathering of leftist theologians who set out, several years ago, to prove from their peculiar examination of Scripture, that Jesus was a little more than a spokesman for some proto-Green Party.
But your servant would be remiss without mentioning a very down-to-earth contribution, James Sauer’s heartfelt meditation “An Everlasting Life: Remembering Mary Denise Sauer: July 12, 1995–August 26, 1995.” Sauer affirms contra mundum that each life, however brief, however helpless, however “flawed” by worldly standards, is precious in the sight of God, and serves His purposes here below, though we cannot see how. Those readers who have ever faced the loss of a small child, or lived with a special-needs child, or known someone who has faced either of these situations, will be especially braced and heartened by Sauer’s essay. “We were blessed to have our Mary for the few days she was given,” writes Sauer. “I do not know whether she will be a child or a grown-up in heaven. I do not know whether a cleft palate is a badge of glory in heaven the way pierced hands are. I believe I do know at the Last Day I will see her. She will meet me in the clouds with Him.” One can only bow one’s head and embrace these words for their wisdom.
As Kushiner notes in his introduction, Russell Kirk was known for planting trees for the benefit of those who would come after him. Kirk planted for posterity—and not trees only, but also wise words of truth, captured on tape and in his myriad articles and books. Creed & Culture performs a similar act for readers of the present and future. It reflects the richness of a well-written periodical which is a pleasure to read and a source of invaluable insight to the modern Christian seeking to better honor God and in faith defend the permanent things while living in today’s world.
James E. Person Jr. is the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Madison Books, 1999).
Posted: March 29, 2007
On Cocktail Time
James V. Schall, S. J.