C. S. Lewis
In his recent op-ed (“The Hypocrisy of Masks,” August/September) exploring the theme of hypocrisy in C. S. Lewis’s works, Gilbert Meilaender presents a careless reading of Lewis’s last novel, Till We Have Faces. This inattention to the details of Orual’s story compromises his argument, which could be deepened by a closer reading of the book.
Lewis did write at length about the transformative power of hypocrisy, as Meilaender’s citations of The Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy, and Mere Christianity plainly attest. Yet he claims this same theme is evident “most profoundly in Till We Have Faces, in the character of Orual, who veils her face for most of the time she rules the imagined Hellenistic kingdom of Glome.” Orual, however, does not become “beautiful beneath the mask.” Rather than transforming her, it conceals her ugliness and prevents her sanctification. It is a veil of bitter self-righteousness, which refuses to acknowledge her evil soul.
Toward the end of her life, Orual has a dream in which her father guides her to a mirror. There, with her veil removed, she finally recognizes the ugliness of the image of Ungit—the blood-demanding god of the kingdom of Glome—in her own face, and so she discovers that she herself is the idol she has hated all her life. She cannot be transformed until after her veil and her robe are torn off and she stands exposed to accuse the gods. In her nakedness she finds her ugliness was rooted in bitterness and pride. Only in the last pages of the book, when she has received grace, does she see her face made beautiful in the reflection of water—a passage that evokes baptism.
In order to enable sanctification, hypocrisy must be self-conscious and honest. It may be right for a man to mask his inward twistedness with acts of virtue, but let no man perfume the stench of his character from God, by whose grace and power that inward “turning of the heart” takes place. For, at the end of the day, even if pretending to be virtuous is better than being indifferent, it is God who sanctifies, not hypocrisy. Therefore, let us strive for virtue in public life, and present our “wayward impulses” to our God and confessors for the transformation of our hearts and minds. And here I find myself once again in full agreement with Meilaender’s conclusion—that “recognizing the gap, a gap we cannot bridge by any effort of our own to turn the heart, opens up space in the moral life for prayer—prayer that a gracious God would do what we cannot,” since “after all, the point of wearing the mask is one day to take it off.”
Gilbert Meilaender replies:
I am always grateful to anyone, like Ian Paine, who can help me “deepen” an argument I have made, and I certainly hope that I would not encourage anyone to “perfume the stench of his character from God.” Still, I suspect that I find Till We Have Faces to be considerably more mysterious and esoteric than Mr. Paine does. While he is certainly right to point to that terrifying scene in which Orual is given the chance to read her complaint against the gods, I think the transformation of her character is not quite so sudden or clear as he suggests. I incline more to think (as Peter Schakel once wrote) that the veil that began as a way to mask Orual’s physical ugliness “becomes, symbolically, a way to cover her inner ugliness and to alter her self-identity, to hide and thus almost to bury her old and despised self.” In that little word “almost” Schakel points to the complexities I was exploring, complexities that perhaps should puzzle Mr. Paine more than they do.
Dana Gioia in “Christianity and Poetry” (August/September) correctly diagnoses the poetry deficiency among modern Christians. But while contrasting this with the lyric nature of the Bible, he neglects a clear opportunity to prescribe (if not administer himself) the needed cure: a poet’s rendition of Scripture’s religious verse.
The psalms and canticles are high poetry, yet who would know it when reading modern translations? Contemporary scholars cram Semitic chiasmus into Western line breaks, but the effect is the opposite of the intent: The poetic attempt is signaled, but what’s received is an unsuccessful attempt. It’s poor verse in English ears, because a poem is inextricably bound to its native tongue. Ezra Pound famously thought most translations of foreign poetry impotent for those ignorant of the language. We ask then, alongside the Psalmist:
And how are we in foreign coasts
To sing songs of the Lord of hosts?
The Grail Psalter (1963) and its 2010 update are an instructive exception. The psalms are set in sprung rhythm—a meter invented by poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins—and invigorate the psalter of the Roman Divine Office. Their success is partly in that, partly in focusing on what Pound called the “indestructible” parts of poetry, what “could not be lost by translation.” But while the meter deployed in the Grail psalms greatly improves their lyric power, it lacks that most English indicator of poetry: rhyme.
It should come as no surprise if the layman fails to recognize Scripture as poetry; it rarely rhythms and never rhymes. This was not always the case. There is an early tradition among the English poets of casting the psalms of David into recognizable verse (Milton, Sidney, Herbert, Coleridge, and Burns are among them). A rhyming psalter is a very American thing too. The first book printed on the continent was the Bay Psalm Book. Published by Puritan pilgrims, it translated the psalter “in such verses as are familiar to an English ear.” They justified themselves as follows:
[T]he Lord hath hid from us the Hebrew tunes, lest we should think ourselves bound to imitate them [. . .] that every nation without scruple might follow as the grave sort of tunes of their own country songs, so the grave sort of verses of their own country poetry.
This is an answer to the psalmist’s question above, found in fact in a later psalm:
O sing the Lord a song that’s new
Him praise the many & the few.
The Bay Psalm Book is itself evidence of Gioia’s insistence that even our secular age cries out for religious verse: A first edition sold in 2013 for $14.2 million, a record for a printed book.
In that spirit, and if the Spirit so moves him, Gioia and other poets should take up the psalmist’s pen, but not as strict translators. Pound’s solution to the foreign poetry problem was similar to the pilgrims’: Something almost like a new poem must come out of alien lines. But such poetry need not be faithless to the Word of God. American bishops can ensure this by patronizing poets to compose orthodox religious verse, as some dioceses now employ artists to enliven holy spaces.
First Things too, a sometime publisher of religious poets, should host psalmist contests to reinvigorate the practice of sacred verse. To spur better poets and conclude the psalm couplets in this piece, below is my own submission of the shortest Davidic poem, rendered more familiar to the English ear:
O praise the Lord, you nations
All peoples make a hymn
For sweet his faithfulness for us
His mercies overbrim—
Dana Gioia replies:
I am grateful to Nick Weil’s response and amplification of points in my essay. Most recent translations of the Bible aim for accuracy and clarity at the expense of resonance. Despite their scholarship, they display an intellectual naivete, not understanding that the form of a literary work is part of its meaning. To translate poetry into prose is a mistranslation, no matter how accurate the paraphrasable sense is communicated.
It would be a fine thing if other poets followed Mr. Weil’s example and crafted new poetic versions of the psalms or passages from the sacred verse. Not only might such a movement create interesting new poetry; it might also inspire composers to enlarge and enliven sacred music. I wish him luck.
I share many of Joshua Mitchell’s criticisms of identity politics (“By the Sweat of Our Brow,” August/September); but it is uncharitable, and unsupported by evidence, to say that people “place ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs on their front lawns” not “to affirm human nature,” but “so that, through imputation, they may count themselves among the pure and innocent.” In my experience, the motivation for posting such signs is to show solidarity with the disadvantaged (a Catholic social teaching), not virtue signaling.
Mitchell also writes:
Whites who grasped their standing in the identity-politics economy—guilty until proven “anti-racist”—had to loathe Trump so that social death would pass them over. Hence the descent into rage that became the prolegomenon to every civilized cocktail party, faculty meeting, and job talk for four long years. Trump Derangement Syndrome became the baptismal rite of The Church of the New American Awakening.
That may have been fun to write; but what would Orwell think of it? Not much, I suspect. Not only is this the kind of writing he criticized in “Politics and the English Language,” but it is just not true. “Descent into rage” misrepresents, and minimizes the legitimate reasons for, the dismay and alarm Trump engenders in many white (and non-white) conservatives. One might better use that phrase (and “Trump Derangement Syndrome”) to describe the behavior and emotional state of the people who stormed the United States Capitol on January 6.
The people I know who disapprove of Trump do so not because they fear being accused of being politically incorrect, but because the best evidence they (and I) have, from multiple sources, consistently demonstrates that he is, on the grounds of both morality and competence, unqualified to hold the office of president and a danger to our country, which we all love. Even his political allies and staff admit to this when in private, or when forced by circumstances (for example, being under oath) to speak the truth.
Misrepresenting the point of view of those with whom we disagree, as Mitchell does in the two passages quoted above, is inconsistent with seeking the truth and a good example of calumny. To quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury” (§ 2477). The most subversive and dismaying social change in my seven decades has been the almost complete normalization of Pilate’s cynical, dismissive, and expedient “What is truth?” (John 18:38). This is a far greater challenge to our society than identity politics. Outright lies have become “alternative facts” in the service of power and money. We are all called to do better.
Christians are to proclaim the gospel and bring others to Christ. But articles like Mitchell’s do little more than preach to the already converted, and have the counterproductive effect of pushing away those who disagree. We should seek to convince, not castigate. David Hume allegedly said (and it is especially true with respect to policy), “the truth arises from argument amongst friends.” Words to live by, in my experience.
It takes extra effort to “speak the truth in love.” I revised this letter several times to make my own language more charitable. I wish Mitchell had done the same.
N. Marcus Thygeson
san rafael, california
Joshua Mitchell replies:
In so short a compass, I cannot reply to this modestly charitable letter of objection point by point. My view of man’s condition is darker than is Marcus Thygeson’s. I do not doubt that we are called to attend to our neighbor; I recognize, furthermore, that within the Roman Catholic Church a doctrine of solidarity has emerged that articulates the meaning of that call, which has served its parishioners well. What I do doubt is that some—indeed much—of what passes today in America as solidarity with the poor consists of anything other than innocence-signaling. In the Bible, we are called to love our neighbor; but the Bible also alerts us that hypocrisy among those who pretend righteousness is an ugly fact about this creature, man, created in God’s image, yet prone to defect from Him. In my essay I cite those who place “Black Lives Matter” signs in their front yard. I do not pretend to know the workings of the human heart. I do know, however, that it is easy to proclaim solidarity with a cause and then think that the hard work necessary to rectify an ill is behind you. If I were to state my principal objection to identity politics, it would be this: It invokes the wound of black America, often for the purpose of advancing other causes—feminism, gay and lesbian rights, and now transgenderism—which purport to be further instances of innocent victimhood, yet it does nothing, really, to heal the wound within black America. By their fruits ye shall know them. The fruits of identity politics are unripe, indeed, especially for black America. Do not mistake my veiled disgust with the BLM movement with lack of concern with the challenges facing black America. It is because I think we can all do better than innocence-signaling support for BLM, or for DEI, or for “anti-racism” training, that I oppose identity politics, which provides the rationale for all three undertakings. Indeed, solidarity matters. But in the world of performative politics of the sort that now dominates America, BLM signs, and the movement behind them, represent a diminished understanding of solidarity.
I surmise that my written remarks about Donald Trump gave the letter writer the impression that I support and defend him. The author claims that Trump was unfit to be president. Perhaps he was. Like tens of millions of Americans, I chose to view the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections in a different way, not as a decision between one over-the-bar candidate and one under-the-bar candidate, but as a decision between two under-the-bar candidates, each with deep personal failings. I did not, in my essay, defend Trump. What I did was point out that normal politics, liberal politics, in which idea is set against idea, was woefully lacking in both elections, and this because in the age of identity politics, someone must be the scapegoat on which all the sins of the world are heaped. Did Donald Trump goad on the opposition? Yes, he did. But did his doing so reveal something trans-political in the opposition? Yes, it did. Many say that Barack Obama is the source of identity politics; I think it more accurate to say that Donald Trump elicited what only lurked in Democrat Barack Obama’s administration, but that had not yet fully emerged. As a consequence of the long, slow emergence of the inner logic of identity politics, to which Donald Trump was midwife, tens of millions of Americans cannot now unsee the scapegoating of Donald Trump and his supporters that is the central message of the Democratic Party. And seeing that normal politics has been supplanted by scapegoating politics, they are troubled and distrustful. In a regime that is looking for a scapegoat, we are not going to be able to labor together “by the sweat of our brow,” toward competence. Should the reader think me partisan in my reply, I note that the ideas in the Republican Party are as moribund as the central idea in the Democratic Party is dangerous. Both political parties need a new beginning, and we would all be wise to withhold our support until a genuinely constructive set of ideas emerges from each. In the meantime, my plea is that we all resolve to remove the category of the scapegoat from politics altogether. There is only one scapegoat who will suffice to take away the sins of the world. If we do not recover that insight, the liberal politics of competence will be lost.
Freedom and Education
Thanks are due to Charles L. Glenn (“Authoritative Homes,” August/September) for drawing our attention to Rita Koganzon’s Liberal States, Authoritarian Families: Childhood and Education in Early Modern Thought, and for highlighting the importance of strong families with authoritative parent leadership. Divergent understandings of the respective roles of the family and the state, as presented in Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, continue to inform contentious debates in the public square today, and we do well to understand the political thought behind our contemporary moment. Glenn is right that strong families are necessary to form citizens with the self-mastery needed to act responsibly in our pluralistic society, governed by diffuse institutions sharing power. His particular emphasis on the word authoritative instead of authoritarian strikes the right tone for describing the ideal of parent leadership.
Even so, presenting the topic of parental authority in the categories of early modern thought has significant limitations. The problem in our society today is not just how we distribute authority so as to promote social harmony, but also how we understand what human flourishing is and what contributes to it, on both individual and social levels. This is particularly clear when exploring the meaning of freedom, a cherished concept for moderns, even if ambiguous. Authentic freedom is not merely the absence of constraint implied by much of modern thought, as if true freedom consists in having a multitude of options to choose between. Authentic freedom is better understood as the capacity and conditions necessary to choose what fulfills one’s nature, which leads to someone’s being the best version of himself and, thus, capable of giving himself to others, including all social relations. As I have argued in my book Decisive Parenting: Forming Authentic Freedom in Your Children, the best understanding of parental leadership and authority comes from broader thinking that includes wisdom from the entire Western intellectual tradition, a perspective that has been ignored or even deliberately rejected by modern thought.
Charles Glenn replies:
I agree with Michael Moynihan that more is required for a flourishing life—particularly in our shattered times—than simple parental authority. Authentic freedom is based on rootedness beyond the family, on a community of shared conviction and tradition sufficiently robust that it can be tested and questioned, as it inevitably will be, without falling apart. His own brief book is a useful as well as engagingly personal guide to how parents can make productive use of their love as well as their authority in nurturing well-rooted children.
In fairness to Rita Koganzon, she is well aware of the importance of education, in its broadest sense, that draws upon a framework richer than the sort of individual “authenticity” promoted by comprehensive liberal educational theory. She lays out the case for this in her wonderfully titled essay “Pork Eating Is Not a Reasonable Way of Life: Yeshiva Education vs. Liberal Educational Theory” for Religious Liberty and Education, a volume about the yeshiva controversy in New York state. Let us hope that she will soon provide us with a more extended discussion of the education, in schools as well as in families and communities, that the rising generation requires.