Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

"If necessary, use words" and other nonsense

Dear Hannah,

You may have heard people say by this point "preach the Gospel.  If necessary, use words."  It may be safely translated, stop preaching.  I've never heard it used in any other context than to get people to stop preaching, and it is used because people believe preaching is less important than doing things.  But if you've been paying any attention, you'll notice that the person who quotes this happens to be speaking, and he happens to be speaking a Christian lesson for the purpose of influencing your thoughts and behavior.  In other words, what you're hearing is a sermon.  I believe it may be fairly asked, at this point, why the person who's speaking instead of keeping his mouth shut isn't keeping his own advice.  It may be because speaking is a better vehicle for ideas than silence.

That our words can be offensive is beyond dispute, especially since Jesus was killed for what He said and not for what He did.  But it should seem suspicious that the same people who claim to want us to be more Christlike are always upset when we ruin their dinner parties -- or when we make serious fun of Orthodox Jews.  It's difficult to tell whether they're being sincere and they want us to put our money where our mouth is, or they're disguising their vice as a virtue.  Silence may mean that we don't say things we shouldn't; it can just as easily mean that we're too cowardly to say the things we should.  But if the Apostles decided it was better for others to take care of the charitable work so they could focus on preaching, I don't see how a division of labor can be any more offensive to Christians today.  That is, unless you're against preaching in general.

These obvious historical instances aside, the interesting thing about the Gospel is that it's almost the exact opposite of what people take it for: the majority taking it more to mean "telling people what to do" and the informed minority taking it more to mean "telling people what Someone has done for you."  In this sense it's almost the antithesis of preaching, and more like ranting about your new boyfriend.  There is, of course, the portion about repenting of your sins and all; but repentance of your sins is a much more laborious task if God doesn't really exist and doesn't really give a damn about you.  In other words, the only thing that's worse than someone saying that Jesus loves you and you ought to repent, is someone implying you ought to repent because you ought to.  Which is what a Gospel without words is.  Unless you're going to mime the crucifixion like a Filipino, in which case I say have at it.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we should have either a Gospel of deeds or of words exclusively; but if you're going to go any route exclusively and risk being imbalanced like a lunatic, I would recommend going with the Gospel of words.  And this is for several reasons.  Aside from the fact that Jesus claimed to have sent prophets and evangelists instead of a bunch of silent do-gooders, if what you're going for is persuasion, a Gospel of deeds is just as offensive as a sermon without being as effective.  If our every act was not only spotless, but overwhelmingly and obviously virtuous (and remember, it would have to be significantly more virtuous than everyone else in order to make an evangelistic impression), we would be a living condemnation to everyone around us.  Try being really good for a long time -- perfect, by Christian standards, if you can -- and see where it gets you. Nobody will really understand what you're about, but they will know who they'd rather not be around.

On the other hand, supposing you weren't perfect but you always dreamed loudly instead; supposing you never quite had your act together, but you were always talking about how wonderful Someone or something else was and how much of a screwup you are; imagine the difference in people's perception.  You might be thought of as obnoxious, but at least your focus would be off yourself.  You would become bigger than just a person: you'd become an idea -- and we slowly become our ideas.  You wouldn't be refusing to do everything fun simply to keep yourself unspotted from the world, which the Apostle James says is one of the two marks of true religion, but you would have a dream about how you could be perfect someday.  Not only is this advantageous because you'll never be perfect down here, but it gives you the appearance of being more honest as well.  People can tell when you're making an unhealthy exertion to be perfect; what decent people can respect is a person who makes mistakes and owns up to them.   Two failures can dream together; they cannot be perfect together.  But there is a point where too much hypocrisy becomes disgusting.

Benjamin Franklin spent a good portion of his early years not only irreligious, but unbearably moral, and he drove his friends completely nuts.  In fact, he states in his autobiography that he was so incredibly strict as a youth, that the people who had his best interest in mind began pulling him aside and telling him he was an ass.  He was a better person than either of us -- one of the best Americans who ever lived, especially by his middle years.  He kept a checklist of all his virtues when he was young, and spent the latter part of the day examining his behavior and checking off the virtues he hourly embodied.  And he learned that in life, it's good enough to be good enough.  To strive for perfection wasn't only impossible, but unbearable.

He tells a story about a man who wanted to buy an axe with a head as shiny as its blade, and asked the blacksmith to polish the rest of the head to perfection.  The blacksmith, knowing how laborious it would be to polish every section of the axe head, said that he'd be happy to comply, if only the buyer would do the honor of peddling the grinding wheel.  So the buyer peddled and peddled and peddled to exhaustion, finally giving up and letting the blacksmith know that the head wasn't quite what he wanted, but that it was good enough.   And Franklin was wise enough to take this story allegorically.

Solomon said the same when he told us to not be overly righteous; or in other words, to not ruin our lives trying to pretend like we're perfect.  You're welcome to try, as I did a few years ago when I tried to make my mind a temple and lost nearly every friend I ever had.  I would never suggest that we should never aim for something great; but I am suggesting that we should expect to never reach perfect greatness -- and certainly never let our own "perfection" be the proof of our religion.  And this is the point of the matter: our exertions can only get us so far.  It's important for us to know what that point is, to keep ourselves from frustration, exhaustion, and obnoxiousness.  But this will only come from experience, probably after you've tried (and I think it's worth trying).  

It's worth mentioning at this point that the subject of this essay, the quote about not using words, originated with St. Francis of Asissi: a man who starved himself, went insane, and died in his middle years.  Now, I don't mean to be too cruel to the man, especially since he seems to have had some fun doing it.  St. Francis's followers were actually known as God's Clowns, and if anything were comparable to a cross between hippies and stand-up comedians (shy of sex and drugs, unfortunately).  But the point of the matter is that St. Francis took Jesus so literally and so radically, that he had to give up a home, a wife, a job, and warm clothes -- and it appears he began stabbing himself in the hands and feet either out of insanity, deception, or self-loathing.  Perhaps he stabbed himself out of all three.  If I was persuaded that true religion meant giving everything to others and never keeping anything for myself, I can guarantee you that I would always feel guilty that I wasn't giving quite everything.  And I know this because when I was very strictly religious, I was afraid to own anything nice.  I stopped shy of stabbing my hands over what I did own, though, and I certainly wouldn't have told anyone the wounds were stigmata.

The point of the matter is that, if St Francis of Asissi lived in your neighborhood and never spoke about Jesus, but was constantly trying to get people to give to the poor while he shivered in the streets and refused even the decent bread that was given to him, you would begin to think he was annoying whether he was right or he was insane -- and especially whether or not he was mute, and especially beyond this whether or not he was Christian.  So if you're going to be a Christian, preach your heart out and admit your failures.  But for goodness' sake, give them the Good News before giving them a big task.  Obligations will be obligatory whichever path you take; the primary benefit of religion is not in our obligations: it is in our hope.

Your father,

*I'm open to the suggestion, proposed by Chesterton, that maybe St Francis wasn't a self-loathing sourpuss, and that maybe he'd seen something so beautiful that he was willing to throw everything else away in pursuit of it.  If this is the case, he might be worth following into the bright abyss of religious fanaticism.  But if this is the case, why are Franciscans sworn to poverty, chastity, and submission?   If they see what he saw -- if what he saw is even visible -- then why swear at all?  If you're really brought under the conviction that everything is passing away, why strike a moral bargain to not hang onto it?  I understand that to be a man means to change, and that our fickle nature leads us to making vows in romance and business.  But if a man loses the conviction to throw his life away to gain the better, what should keep him there?  Or as Jesus said about the unfaithful, when salt loses its flavor, can you make it salty again?  Isn't it better to throw it out?

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