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William Alexander Percy

From what I have seen on my Facebook feed, pretty much any blog or story about how to deal with the demise of “the church” in “this generation” is guaranteed to go viral. Whether it’s cultural relevance, musical style, or social policies, everyone seems to have an opinion and everybody else seems to want to share it, both literally and figuratively.

This morning I thumbed through a volume I hadn’t read in a while, the memoir of Walker Percy’s uncle, William Alexander Percy: Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son (LSU Press), published in 1941. I had the good fortune to teach the book in a Southern Memoir course (how blessed am I to have taught such a course!). Hindsight shows Percy to be embarrassingly paternalistic in his views on race, but some of his observations on religion are fascinating. One chapter in particular deals with the conflict between Southern Catholicism and the Ku Klux Klan, which is an insightful and poignant documentation of a shameful part of history.

What caught my eye today, though, was his chapter “For the Young People.” He goes straight to the throat of the deep South’s cultural Christianity with bare knuckles and brutal prose. He was concerned about the demise of religion in the lives of the young people he knew. He termed this sort of pseudo-faith as filled with “the ghosts of dead phrases—salvation, washed in the blood of the Lamb, He descended into hell, the resurrection of the body, born of the Virgin Mary.” He knew even in the pre-World War II era that a cultural religion is no religion at all but is a winking form of hypocrisy that finds thin consolation in a genial Sunday morning service that is detached from either the life of the mind or the reality of the work-a-day world.

I blogged about one of these Mississippi youth , the Faulkner scholar Noel Polk (who was among my doctoral mentors), whose own memoir documented indirectly how Percy’s concerns facilitated his departure from the faith. As I noted in that post, for those of us from the deep South, it is easy to wonder how anyone from that era was able to stomach remaining in the faith after witnessing so much hatred and ignorance.

Will Percy did not share his more famous nephew’s orthodoxy, but he did have a high view of the ideals of the faith (as filtered through the pragmatic Stoicism he saw in Marcus Aurelius). Percy notes the all-too-rampant detachment of morality from theology by relating a conversation he had with a pastor. He asked the pastor why so many prominent church members were rogues and scoundrels. The pastor replied, “They have been born again. When they are born again, they are certain of salvation, and when you are certain of salvation you may do what you like . . . . The ethics of Jesus do not interest them when their rebirth guarantees them salvation.” Percy then amplifies this by calling this sort of religion “an emotional experience . . . not related to morals.”

Because of this, he says,

“I think of what is being offered to our young people in their need by the churches and my heart is filled with anger and sorrow . . . . .  Where lies the virtue in attempting to persuade honest young minds to entertain such outworn rubbish? And what have such tenets to do with religion? How nearly impossible the churches have made it for such minds, earnestly seeking the truth, to join a church or even to remain religious! Not science but the Christian sects are causing the death of religion [emphasis mine]. The pitiful part of it is that it is as true now as it ever was that without faith the people perish, and they are perishing before our eyes. As object of faith Hitler has offered Race, Stalin the State, American Success, which is Mammon.”

Percy offers a trenchant antidote:
“These youths of ours know none of [these false gods] is worthy, they know too they are sick, but when they turn for cure to the churches, the prescription handed them is written in the language of Hippocrates. These youngsters crave community of aspiration and purpose, they fear to be alone and outcast. A church forgetting its devitalized patter and meaningless incantations could tell them simply there is no unity except the unity of brotherhood, no brotherhood without a common father. Philosophical conceptions—the Trinity, the atonement, the fall, the redemption—cannot save this generation, for they speak a beautiful dead language, when what we need is live words, tender with meaning and assurance. Without them the young drift through the world, aimless, unemployed, with no certainties in their heart to give them anchorage or peace.”

For Percy, the cultural religion had grown fallow and empty, and his solution was the exchange of theology for morality, a devil’s bargain if there ever were one but one that still finds buyers throughout the religious world who are sheepish around any sort of restraining forces beyond their own sensibilities. The bulk of our age’s criticisms of the church seem to seek the same end. The answer, of course, is not a swap but an integration of sincerely pursued righteousness grounded in rigorous orthodoxy, a tougher sale to be sure. But as G. K. Chesterton once observed, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

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