Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Challenge of the Moment

Over at Titus One Nine, I've noticed a number of comments (on various posts) drawing parallels between the apocalyptic banquet scene in C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength and the present unravelling of the Episcopal Church. In a book so rich with eschatological imagery, are there not other moments in the story that could be drawn upon for solace in the present crisis?

What of Cecil Dimble's final appeal to Mark Studdock: "I can offer you no security. Don't you understand? There is no security for anyone now. The battle has started. I'm offering you a place on the right side. I don't know which will win." (223)

Or that powerful scene when Mark, the sociologist who has been steadily seduced by the dark forces inhabiting Belbury, is called upon to complete his 'education' by desecrating a crucifix. Interestingly, the salvific effect is not, at least at the time, couched in terms of a conversion experience:

"He was himself, he felt, as helpless as the wooden Christ. As he thought this, he found himself looking at the crucifix in a new way - neither as a piece of wood nor a monument of superstition but as a bit of history. Christianity was nonsense, but one did not doubt that the man had lived and had been executed thus by the Belbury of those days. And that, as he suddenly saw, explained why this image, though not itself an image of the Straight or Normal, was yet in opposition to crooked Belbury. It was a picture of what happened when the Straight met the Crooked, a picture of what the Crooked did to the Straight - what it would do to him if he remained straight. It was, in a more emphatic sense than he had yet understood, a cross." (336)

Most of those in the majority in the Episcopal Church with whom we fundamentally disagree seem much closer in character to Mark Studdock than to those corrupted by Belbury and ultimately condemned because of it. In the early pages of That Hideous Strength the reader is not encouraged to feel much sympathy for Mark and yet he is ultimately spared when the heavenly powers finally descend. This seems a much healthier perspective from which to view those with whom we disagree.

And then there is one of my favorite passages, where the small company of the faithful wait for the powers to descend - so much human emotion, but it is surely that of Mother Dimble with which we are to concern ourselves.

Down in the kitchen MacPhee sharply drew back his chair so that it grated on the tiled floor like a pencil squeaking on a slate. "Man!" he exclaimed, "it's a shame for us to be sitting here looking at the fire. If the Director hadn't got a game leg himself, I'll bet you he'd have found some other way for us to go to work." Camilla's eyes flashed towards him. "Go on!" she said, "go on!" "What do you mean MacPhee?" said Dimble. "He means fighting," said Camilla. "They'd be too many for us, I'm afraid," said Arthur Denniston. "Maybe that!" said MacPhee. "But maybe they'll be too many for us this way too. But it would be grand to have one go at them before the end. To tell you the truth I sometimes feel I don't greatly care what happens. But I wouldn't be easy in my grave if I knew they'd won and I'd never had my hands on them. I'd like to be able say as an old sergeant said to me in the first war, about a bit of a raid we did near Monchy. Our fellows did it all with the butt end, you know. "Sir," says he, "did ever you hear anything like the way their heads cracked?" "I think that's disgusting," said Mother Dimble. "That part is, I suppose," said Camilla. "But . . . oh if one could have a charge in the old style. I don't mind anything once I'm on a horse." "I don't understand it," said Dimble, "I'm not like you MacPhee. I'm not brave. But I was just thinking as you spoke that I don't feel afraid of being killed and hurt as I used to do. Not tonight." "We may be, I suppose," said Jane. "As long as we're all together," said Mother Dimble. "It might be . . . no I don't mean anything heroic . . . it might be a nice way to die.'"And suddenly all their faces and voices were changed. They were laughing again, but it was a different kind of laughter. Their love for one another became intense. Each, looking on all the rest, thought, "I'm lucky to be here. I could die with these." (323-4)

Can we say that of those with whom we share these transitory moments of uncertainty? Are our parishes, our prayer groups, our ministries so ordered? And if not, are we really so far removed from the environment of Belbury as we would like to imagine?

Extracts from C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Macmillan, 1946).

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