As a Catholic growing up in the years before Vatican II, I knew very few Protestants, much less evangelicals, even though I lived in Kentucky and southern Indiana, heartland of Protestantism, and not the Episcopalian variety. As a matter of fact, until I went to college, there were no blacks and not a single person I would have been able to identify as Jewish among my acquaintances. Such was the status and class separation of the 1950s, an outcome of the hermeticism of middle-class life of that era.
Segregation, based on the felt inferiority of a class of human beings, has come to be offensive to right-thinking people, but, traditionally, living among people like yourself has been the natural order of things. Our neighborhood and the reigning class segregation meant that middle-class kids in the heartland knew very little about the world beyond the neighborhoods from which we seldom roamed. Where would we have roamed? There were no amusement arcades, no malls or cineplexes. For us kids the world consisted of home and school; and all schools then, whether public or parochial, were local. Unless you lived on a farm and rode a schoolbus, you walked to school, so that the children from even the next school district might as well have lived in another state.
This by way of preface to my difficulty in finding the right way to talk about a small book by Mark DeMoss called The Little Red Book of Wisdom, which I received in the mail several months ago. Mark DeMoss is an evangelical. His father, Arthur S. DeMoss, who died in 1979, made a fortune selling insurance to people with very few health risks—conservative Christians. His legacy is the DeMoss Foundation, which funds many conservative causes. Its campaign in the early 1990s—TV spots with the tag line “Life. What a beautiful choice”—transformed the abortion debate in this country. His son is the head of the DeMoss Group, public relations specialists serving Christian organizations and causes. As described in this book, evangelicalism and evangelicals figure prominently in Mark DeMoss’ life. His first job as a teenager, for instance, was selling topical Bibles door to door in rural Pennsylvania for the Southwestern Company. Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham make appearances here.
DeMoss’ prayer or request of God has for years been for wisdom: “wisdom to handle relationships well, to manage a business and advise clients, to be a good husband and father.” In twenty-three short chapters, he draws on his own experience, in business and in his personal life, to offer principles for “the gaining of wisdom.” These concern truth-telling in building a corporate culture, the importance of writing letters and using technology wisely, and about finding focus and listening to older people. It is not so much a book of etiquette or a self-help primer as it is a meditation on the moral life, particularly the hard work necessary to achieve a good life while acting morally.
The moral life described in The Little Red Book, however, was basically the one assented to throughout the land in the 1950s, despite the segregation and hermeticism that characterized American life then. I particularly liked the chapter entitled “The Best Defense . . . Is a Good Defense,” or “Why I won’t ride alone with another woman.” Despite the mores depicted in Hollywood movies of the era (remember Doris Day and Rock Hudson?), I suspect that my father and other men of our class would likewise have avoided being in an elevator or in a car alone with a woman not their wife. By avoiding any appearance of impropriety, a man’s reputation (and a woman’s, it might be added) is never endangered.
Despite this congruity in values, I was uncomfortably aware that the experience of God described in this book was different from my own, though, again, as with the moral life the book portrays, not many Catholics would disagree that putting “God first in our habits and first in our homes” contributes to a good life. Since DeMoss mentions starting each day with reading a chapter of Proverbs, I logged in to iTunes and subscribed to a podcast of the Old Testament book. I listened faithfully every morning on my iPod to the readings by George Sarris, an actor well known for his dramatizations of Bible stories. I relished Sarris’ re-creations, as well as the nuggets of wisdom offered in the cadences of the King James version of the Bible. Fools, false witnesses, scorners, fallen women, slothful men, and the mockery of wine abound. Some of my favorites:
Better is a dry morsel, and quietness therewith, than an house full of sacrifices with strife (17:1).
He that hath a froward heart findeth no good: and he that hath a perverse tongue falleth into mischief (17:20).
When thou sittest to eat with a ruler, consider diligently what is before thee (23:1).
Though thou shouldest bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him (27:22).
Listening to these, I wished there had been more scriptural immersion than Baltimore Catechism during my dozen years of Catholic schooling. Still, the practicality of the injunctions underlined my sense of difference. By way of contrast, the following are the kinds of spiritual advice with which I am more familiar:
You may be the only Jesus your neighbor will see.
It is easier to see God in the sinner because I must make an effort to do so. It is one of the paradoxes of life that I run the risk of losing sight of God in those who are easy to love, because I begin to seek my own good in them.
The saints suffered. Therese had tuberculosis, Teresa of Avila had cancer of the stomach. Padre Pio had perpetual diarrhea and asthma. Bernadette had asthma too. Mother Cabrini had high fever due to malaria she contracted during her travels. Holiness is not for wimps and the cross is not negotiable, sweetheart, it’s a requirement.
The last quote probably gives away the source. The words are those of the immortal Mother Angelica, reproduced in her own little book of wisdom: Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality. I first encountered Mother Angelica about a dozen years ago on a cable TV channel while vacationing in Montauk. Talk about throwbacks to the 1950s, as well as about the out-of-the-way places in which the human soul finds communication with God.
The titles of the two books are interestingly similar, and much of the advice Mother Angelica offers can be found, if worded differently, in Mark DeMoss (“Don’t waste your time in life trying to get even with your enemies. The grave is a tremendous equalizer”). Nonetheless, the books express different approaches to the spiritual life. I got some illumination about these differences from an unexpected source. My area of academic expertise is Goethe, and, while reading the third volume of On Art and Antiquity, from 1822, I came across some observations concerning various beggars whom Goethe had encountered in his travels, including a comparison of Protestant beggars and their Catholic counterparts.
Of the former, Goethe writes that, on receiving alms, they say matter-of-factly, “May God reward you for your generosity,” without, however, offering to put in a good word for you with the Almighty. And then the two of you go your separate ways. The Catholic, however, says he will pray for you, he will storm God and his saints with petitions, until they shower you with the choicest material and spiritual blessings.
When one is in the right mood, it is really touching to see someone who, despite a direct relationship with the highest being, is unable to entreat for himself a reasonable improvement in his own condition, but nevertheless believes himself able to be the patron of another, making an appearance before God, accompanied by his many clients, with his supplications.
The essay in which this quotation appears concerns coincidences and the seemingly accidental nature of good fortune—for example, the unexpected beneficence of a handful of coins from a toff like Goethe. For Goethe, the prayers of the Catholics suggested superstition. Like many Germans raised in the Protestant tradition, he was both fascinated by Catholic practices and repelled by what he would have called mysticism. (Mother Angelica: “Angels could kill 260,000 people in one night. One angel went through Egypt and killed the firstborn humans, cows, sheeps, dogs, cats, locusts—everything that was firstborn went. That angel was powerful.”)
Still, Goethe’s anecdote hits on a distinguishing point that, for all I know, has been more theoretically elucidated by Durkheim or Weber and that underlies the different direction in which Protestantism traveled with the onset of modernity. To men of the Enlightenment like Goethe, Catholicism must have seemed downright impractical in a worldly sense. And it continues to reflect this unworldliness. As Mother Angelica says: “A Christian has one goal in mind: What does God want me to do? And he doesn’t care what it costs, because he was not created for this life, but for the next.” Though there is nothing in Thomas Nelson’s press kit or in The Little Red Book itself to indicate why DeMoss chose this particular title (and the book itself has a bright red binding), one has to assume a not-so-sly riposte to Chairman Mao’s “little red book.” Communism, with its atheistic worldview, failed to create worldly prosperity or happiness.
Mark DeMoss has made me appreciate more than ever the richness of America’s religious traditions. Just last week, however, I came across other readings, in this matter of prayer, that made the differences between Protestants and Catholics complex again. These were the readings at mass on Sunday, July 27. In the gospel, Jesus instructs a disciple (Luke 11:1–3) on how to pray, with words (“When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name . . . “) that are familiar to Protestant and Catholic alike. And then there is Abraham, in a dialogue with the Lord on behalf of Sodom (Genesis 18:16–32), engaging in the kind of intercession Goethe describes of Catholics: “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty? Suppose there were fifty innocent people in the city; would you wipe out the place, rather than spare it for the sake of the fifty innocent people within it?” To which the Lord replies, that he will spare the whole place for the sake of the fifty. Abraham is not content, however, and continues to bargain with God to spare Sodom if there are only ten innocent souls there.
Goethe, as steeped as he was in Luther’s translation of the Bible, missed that aspect of prayer. As Mother Angelica would have told him: “A lot of people today pray, but they never talk to God. Why don’t you speak up and really talk to God, heart to heart, like a friend?”
Elizabeth Powers, who is completing a memoir of American life since the 1950s, is chair of the Columbia University Seminar on Eighteenth-Century European Culture.