Waugh

The god of the two-car garage

My recent perusal of Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels brings out another critique of post-war America, which is the erosion of religion in public life.

Today much of this blame falls on the Baby Boomers, but Thompson himself was born in 1937, and I think much of the loss of faith can be blamed on the unprecedented prosperity in America following World War II.

A general historical principle is that affluence and prosperity breed decadence and depravity.  Being afflicted by the mortal sin of pride, humans naturally turn from the divine and attribute their success to their own cleverness and intellect.  Only fools still follow the old ways, which limit both human imagination and the scope of available pleasure.

The Old Testament is chock full of examples, and records of other peoples in different cultures confirm the same tendency.  Contemporary accounts of prosperous reigns almost always include a lamentation that the gods and their morals are being neglected.

It this was true of the US, but with two key additions.  The first was the sheer scale of wealth, which gave common people a quality of life beyond the reach of the super-rich as recently as a half-century ago.  While the Robber Barons of the gilded age might have had a luxurious estate and gold utensils, they didn't have x-rays, antibiotics or radios.  To evade the heat, they had to retreat to an estate on the lake or in the foothills, but by the 60s and 70s, air condition was something middle class people had.

The second was the pervasive influence of the Puritan founding.  Though their religious practice is all but forgotten, their beliefs regarding individual success and failure endure.  Put simply, people who are doing well are seen as morally superior to those who have failed.  Whereas this was once seen as a sign that they were among God's Elect, it has increasingly been folded into the secular concept of the "meritocracy," the notion that the best and brightest should be accorded more prestige and therefore power.

This no doubt fueled Thompson's hatred of the middle class, since he keenly felt the stigma of not achieving conventional measures of success.

He also detested what he considered their primitive and dull-witted adherence to the old moral codes.  His writing (and that of his contemporaries) generally sneers at organized religions.  In this telling, religious people are either hypocrites (and often running a racket) or simply too stupid to sin. 

Thompson himself is something of an aesthete - sampling drugs like rare vintages of wine.  It's interesting that he regarded the Kentucky Derby as "decadent and depraved" but felt much more at home among the Hell's Angels or various hippie communes.

The problem with society wasn't immorality, but morality itself.  If people would just back off, stop judging and enjoy life, everything would work out fine.   It was the stuffed shirts who ruined everything.  This is the ethos of Caddyshack.

That's all when and good when one is young and carefree, but it ultimately doesn't satisfy the soul.  The significance of The Big Chill was that it was the first warning to the Boomers that the party would eventually end.

At that point, it was the rubes who went to church who were having the last laugh while the materialists frantically try various cosmetic and health procedures to preserve their youth.

I've written about Carly Simon's semi-conversion, but John Voight's change is even more profound and striking.  In the 1970, he was making edgy fare like Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home, but he's now offering public prayers for the salvation of the nation. 

There's a hint of Evelyn Waugh about that, and one of the great might-have-beens is if Thompson had a similar conversion.  Alas, he shut himself completely off from God.  Even his funeral was a mockery of religious observance.

Ultimately, that's where materialism leads.  At some point the drugs no longer produce the same highs, one's possessions seem old and tawdry and the end of football season looms (Thompson's suicide note actually cited this as part of his depression).  At that point, the god of the two-car garage falls silent.

 

 

 


The Problem of Evil revisited

Not quite two years ago I addressed what some people call the Problem of Evil and used the example of how children will defy even the most loving and caring parents.

For those not up to speed on Christian apologetics, the Problem of Evil is also phrased as "why does God allow bad things to happen?"

I stand by my earlier answer, but in the time since I gave it, I've come to see things differently.  To me the question is rather "How do good things happen at all?"

I mean, the notion that life should be free of harm, danger or sorrow is completely divorced from reality.  Looking at the world around us and informed by history, the most logical expectation of life is that it should be (to quote Hobbes) "nasty, brutish and short."

And it often is.  Interestingly, in such societies expectations of comfort and leisure are few and fleeting.  I think our current notions of "evil" are largely informed by the unprecedented peace and prosperity Westerners have lived in for the past few generations.

Where I live, there is an assumption in the wider community that these things are the default setting for humanity, that they will happen organically, naturally, like flowers blooming in the spring.  When something disturbs their tranquility, they are indignant and demand that changes be made to ensure it never happens again.  I have a mental image of Karen demanding to speak with God's manager.

One of the keys to happiness (and avoiding disappointment) is aligning expectations with realistic outcomes.  In truth, there is no bottom, no guaranteed level of comfort for any of us.  The only guarantee in life is that it ends in death.  People who have endured great hardship over a space of years get this. 

Every Vietnam POW I've talked to (and I've talked to quite a few as guest speakers during my military career) has an incredible grateful and optimistic demeanor.  They cherish every sunrise and sunset.  No sensation is wasted, from a warm shower to clean sheets on their feet.  After each presentation I have remarked that while I envy their joy, I'm not sure I want to spend years at the Hanoi Hilton to get it.

That's because it's hard to not to take nice things for granted when it is all you have known.  While I am thankful for nice things, I have come to also be thankful for hardships that make me appreciate them more. 

All of which is to say that one of the proofs of God is the presence of goodness and joy in the world.  Logically, it serves no purpose.  Fear and oppression are far more efficient and frankly pleasing to most people.  Absent some sort of moral scruple, most people won't think twice about stealing or hurting someone.  It is only through religion (specifically, Christianity) that we develop a sense that this is wrong.

Much of Western society still has a residual sense of Christian morality, but that is now fading, and we're seeing the results.  Appeals to decency are now pointless, and it has even gone so far that some people respond to expressions of sympathy and offers of prayer with rage and profanity.

These are people who are perilously close to the "I would lie, cheat, steal or kill if only I could get away with it" threshold, but that can't see it.

Indeed, here I must once again mention the Yard Sign Calvinists, who often play a leading role in both disparaging Christianity and wishing harm on those they deem outside of the Elect.

Evil can manifest in many ways, and J.R.R. Tolkien's work illustrates how the more pure of motives can lead one down a dark path.  G.K. Chesterton likewise gives countless illustrations of how the well-meaning and self-righteous become the devil's tools.  Much of Evelyn Waugh's satire focuses on this as well (particularly in Black Mischief).

Thus, I'm not saying anything particularly new or unique, and I freely admit that the Lord of Spirits podcast has contributed to my understanding of evil.

When bad things happen, it is important that we retain this perspective.  God knows our suffering, and we should always strive to learn from it.  It is possible to make something good out of a terrible event - as the Vietnam POWs I mentioned above have done.

Indeed, I think that is something most pleasing to God and perhaps why people who have achieved it seem so content.

 


The Christmas Spirit

In may last post I (jokingly?) referred to malign spirits of technology glitches, but over the last few years I've come to accept that there's more spiritual activity in this world than we acknowledge.

While I have to give the obligatory nod to the Lord of Spirits podcast, this view predated my wife's discovery of them, and it also made me very receptive of their message.

Timing is important in these sorts of things.  What might have seemed stupid then may make perfect sense now.  Given my upbringing, which was very skeptical of miracles and hostile to organized religion, I could only accept these truths gradually.

As the podcast points out, there are singular spirits, but also collective ones - the "spirit of the age" as it were (literally Zeitgeist in German).  There are also crowd spirits, and we see this in things like football games or various rallies.  How many times has "the mood turned sour" and a reasonably calm crowd suddenly become overcome by madness - a change that even the participants found hard to explain?

I'm sure some of you are immediately thinking of psychological conclusions (certainly I am), but what if psychology itself is an attempt to find a material expression for a spiritual event?  The grand experiment in secular psychology is about a century old and the results are pretty awful.  We pump people full of drugs, tell them to play with crayons and they still kill themselves.

Indeed, now our "medical professionals" are urging assisted suicide as a solution to chronic depression!

To me, it is increasingly obvious that the problem is a separation from God and any sense of meaning in life.  If you're just a bony juice bag waiting to get the whole thing over with, fast-forwarding to the ending makes sense.  Obviously, folks like G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis pointed all this out decades ago.  If you aren't reading them, you should be.

In addition to the spirits of crowds, I think there are also spirits of events, and that's where Christmas comes in.  One of the Enemy's greatest victories was turning the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord into a celebration of materialism.  I hate "holiday displays" that center on wrapped gifts - as if that's the reason for the season. 

Growing up as I did, the culmination of Christmas was Christmas Day, but traditionally that is the beginning, not the end.  As the song says, there's 12 days of Christmas, and the decorations should stay up and the music should still play because the event isn't just about tearing away wrapping paper on the morning of the 25th.

I am pleased to say that (at least in the circles I move in), this view is becoming more common. 

Partly because our kids are grown, the gift-giving element has become merely symbolic in our household.  I'm hoping to do what I can to ensure our grandkids also look at the season as a time for some presents, but that it should in now way be a lavish attempt to either show off prosperity, or a belated attempt to buy affection.  I know kids who grew up with that, and it hasn't worked out well for them.

Despite what was in many ways an unhappy childhood, I've always had a warm spot for Christmas because I associate it with joy and happiness.  Christmas Day to me has been marked with family gatherings, old friends dropping in and a sense of overall well-being.  I hope your Christmas is possess by the same benevolent spirit that has touched mine.

 


Constantly living under explosive tension: Danger UXB

I'm continuing to knock out old shows I missed in my youth, and for the past week I've been binging on Danger UXB, a British production about a bomb-disposal squad during World War II.

The main character, Lt. Brian Ash is brilliantly played by Anthony Andrews, whose career was at its zenith during this period.  Andrews of course played Sebastian Flyte in the immortal TV version of Brideshead Revisited, which is arguably the best adaptation ever filmed.

Many of the same actors are present in Danger UXB, and because it has only 13 episodes, every single one of them is extremely tense because at any point someone can (and often does) get blown up.

In lesser hands, that would be a cheap gimmick, and certainly the likes of HBO's Game of Thrones writing room would make a hash of it, however, Danger UXB is very well done.  I'm looking forward to watch it again, this time savoring the character development and tension.

To me, that is the true test of a story, whether book for film - that you enjoy it so much that even with the spoilers you love watching it again.

As an aside, I think it's interesting how many shows I'm discovering at this stage in life.  I remember seeing Danger UXB in the TV books of the time, and passing over it because it sounded weird.  Obviously, my time to see was not yet come.

 


Savoring Joseph Conrad's Almayer's Folly

I may have to add a "Conrad" tag, because along with J.R.R. Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh, I really enjoy the writings of Joseph Conrad.

It started in high school, blossomed in college and then mostly slept through adulthood.

Recently, I obtained a copy of Almayer's Folly, his first novel.  It is superb.  In fact, I would argue that it has been unjustly overlooked.  As a story, it keeps you guessing, and the description and prose is outstanding.

Yet for some strange reason, his later work has eclipsed it.  Everyone wants to fixate on Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim.  Both books are good, but so is Almayer's Folly.

One of the areas where it stands out is in its representation of female characters.  Conrad typically does not have a lot of women in his stories - which is understandable, because so many of them take place at sea.  This particular work, however, delves into the female psyche, and a friend tells me that the book is seeing a revival in feminist circles because it not only has strong women, but strong non-white women, which is for some reason important right now.

The last time I checked, most women in the world weren't white, but most of the ones that speak English are, which would seem (to me, at least) to explain the discrepancy.

In any event, it's a good read, full of vivid description and exactly the kind of book I needed to take a break from the craziness of the world.

 

 


The Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

The liturgical calendar was something I was only vaguely aware of when I entered the Catholic Church 16 years ago.  Yes, I knew about some of the bigger religious holidays, but the extent to which all time is organized in accord with religious memorials, solemnities and feasts escaped me.

Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy was something of a wake-up call.  One of Waugh's quirks was to order the events in the book to the liturgical calendar, rather than by giving specific days and months.  This book really opened my heart to the richness of what the Church offers.

The Lord of Spirits podcast pushed me further, helping me to recognize that the world can be viewed with both secular and spiritual lenses.  As time has passed, I'm more quick to push the secular ones aside and take a glance at the Unseen as well as the Seen.

So of course the momentous news that Roe v. Wade had finally been decisively repudiated came on day of religious significance - and one that will no doubt have more significance going forward.

The ruling had been leaked, but to what end?  Was it genuine?  Would it hold?  Apparently it did, and for much of the day I struggled to adjust myself to the new reality.  I am only a little younger than Roe v. Wade, and have grown up in its long, dark shadow.  I've watched society become ever more obsessed with personal pleasure at any cost, and I've seen the act of abortion go from being considered a lesser evil to a positive good.

This is nothing short of demonic.  There are few perversions so profound, so stark as convincing mothers to slaughter their unborn children so that they can better enjoy life.  At least in pagan times, children were offered up to the gods in exchange for timely rains or abundant harvests - matters of communal survival.

Today, the payoff is a few extra packages from Amazon or a week's vacation through Airbnb.  Put simply, humans have become really cheap dates for the dark powers.

That changed yesterday, and while it was a great victory, the struggle is not over.  It will new enter a new phase as the Enemy tries new methods and attempts to break up the coalition that achieved it.

Still, as the calendar reminds us,  there is a time for everything.  I will spend the next few days contemplating the great goodness of God, and how fortunate we all are to see this day.


What are the German Catholics up to now?!

Whenever he came across Catholics who were in favor of abortion, or wanted to ordain women as priests, my father would nod sagely and say:  "You know, there's a term for people who feel like you - Protestant."

Apparently a bunch of Catholic bishops in Germany have decided that the way to put more people in pews is to stop being Catholic.

Which is weird, because all the "reforms" being trotted out are already available in the German Evangelical (i.e. Lutheran) Church.

What's interesting is that this is generating a backlash amongst the Catholic hierarchy of global proportions.

By the way, none of this is in any way new.  One doesn't even have to go back to Martin Luther - a century ago the same bromides were being advocated to "modernize" Christianity.  One of the amusing things about reading G.K. Chesterton or Evelyn Waugh is that the would-be reformers of past years sound just like the ones of today.

The difference of course is that we've had a century to see where that leads.  The fruit of the trees is plain to see, and it's a wasteland of unfaith and depravity.  The same Protestant church I mentioned a few weeks ago has a new message on its jumbo-tron style sign out front:  "You are enough."  The words appear amidst sunlit clouds, implying that God is the one saying this.

Which is absurd, because if we are enough, who needs God?  Why go to church?  Why donate?  I'm enough, so I can sleep in or maybe stream the service between binging on Netflix.

The whole point of Easter is that we aren't enough.  If everything's okay, if God loves me no matter what, why did Christ have to suffer death and then conquer it through the Resurrection?

One gets the sense that a great many German clerics never really bought into any of the Church's teachings.  Perhaps they assumed that the Church would fall prey to modernity and that by now women would be in wearing priestly vestments and they could be having licit homosexual relationships (since that's also always a key feature of "modernization").

There is a certain irony here, because Pope Francis - who is the least dogmatic Pontiff in generations - is being driving into the same corner as the hard-liners.  He also wants to change the Church, but I'm fairly certain he does not want to go down in history as the Pope who lost Germany for the second time.


The new old concept of a "general strike"

When you study history enough, nothing seems new.  It's always an echo of an earlier time.

Recently I was reminded of the old notion of a "general strike," wherein the working classes would simultaneous refuse to work.  I've not lived through any, but the 1926 general strike in Great Britain features in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.

The main character, Charles Ryder, was too young to have fought in the Great War, but he and his peers eagerly embraced the opportunity to test their manhood, even though the strike only lasted little over a week.

Of course, even aristocrats were made of sterner stuff back then.  The degree to which our standard of living has improved is staggering to think about.  Setting aside electronic gizmos or medical advances, the fact that we can control room temperature to the exact degree is a staggering (and generally ignored) achievement.

What is interesting is that as great as the gap between rich and poor, noble and commoner was back then, it is far greater now.  It is possible for the wealthy to live in an entirely self-contained world, beyond the reach of the unwashed masses.  This renders them completely indifferent to the fate of those outside their (sometimes literal) bubble.

Waugh lamented the end of the great manor houses and their supporting retainers and tenants because as much as it may have galled observers that the yeoman farmers pulled their forelock to the landlord, the fates and circumstances of both were intimately linked.

That's no longer the case, and it's fascinating to see people so removed from day-to-day life that even simple tasks elude them.  To give an alarming example, upon purchasing a new car, my daughter was given a series of brightly-illustrated documents explaining regular maintenance was and how often it should be done.  This was in addition to the owner's manual, and was clearly designed to help the mechanically ignorant.

What is more, several letters soon followed, reminding her that oil changes weren't optional and that the warranty could be voided if these tasks weren't carried out in a timely manner.

I suspect there are people now of age who are so coddled that they have no idea what goes into maintaining an automobile.  So far as they knows, you turn it on and it goes.

What adds to the irony is that this same generation fancies itself the most conscientious, most moral, most exquisitely sensitive people that have ever lived.  They ceaselessly boast about the past injustices based on race, class or gender, and yet they have even less understanding of these things than the people they condemn.

Even the most stuck-up duke understood the proper care of horses, and would often take a personal hand in the care of particularly prized steeds.  Similarly, the ladies of the estate had an extensive knowledge of fabric and the techniques used to secure it.  Otherwise, how would they know quality garments from rags?

To put it another way, being an elite required extensive knowledge of the signifiers necessary to be elite.

That knowledge seems entirely lacking today.

This in turn means that our elites are also uniquely vulnerable to a general strike.  Not knowing how to do an oil change is one thing.  Not knowing that it is required creates a whole new level of dependency.


Paganism in the 21st Century

Since for Catholics like me, the Christmas liturgical season is just getting started, I have no need to modify my Christmas wishes to all of you by adding "belated."  I can simply wish you a "Merry Christmas" like normal, since there are almost two weeks of Christmas left to go.

This may seem like a strange time to bring up paganism, but I can't think of a more appropriate circumstance given the state of the world today.

Christmas itself has been warped into a retail holiday, something even irreligious people observe by taking time away from work, gathering with friends and family, and of course exchanging gifts.

There was a time within my memory that people who were not Christian (or were part of one of the more obscure heretical sects) pointedly did not celebrate Christmas, and that was why "Christmas Concerts" became "Winter Concerts" or "Holiday Concerts."  But I digress.

Driving home from the early Mass yesterday, a new thought occurred to me.  For many years I believed that pagans were just superstitious and that when they offered sacrifices, cut upon animals to gaze upon the entrails and approached oracles, it was one giant con by the elites against the rubes.  Thanks to The Lord of Spirits Podcast, I now understand that those 'gods' were real insofar as they could influence events and offer advice.

This is why ancient Israel was constantly tempted to break their covenant with God and participate in pagan rituals - they actually worked!

Of course another reason was that the pagan code of ethics was generally more permissive of sin - in fact it regarded some sins as virtues.  Some of the pagan philosophers advocated humility, but in practice the bigger the ego, the bigger your following.  Yes, they saw a relationship between hubris and nemesis, but so long as you kept sacrificing to the gods, nemesis could be kept at bay.

At least that was the thinking.

In any event, my revelation was this: growing up, I wondered why people would truly become Wiccan in light of the fact that it was mostly made-up and the practitioners I knew didn't seen happy or well off - the two traditional signs of divine favor across almost all cultures.

And then it hit me: their prayers were in fact being answered, and in exactly the way they wanted.

The Wiccans I knew seemed to want three things from their faith.  First, they wanted to get back at their traditional (often Dutch Reformed) parents.  Wicca was about as bad as they could be.

Second, they wanted absolute sexual license, and this they got.  The Goddess (or whoever) absolutely blessed them with frequent and (in theory) very intense erotic encounters. 

Finally, they wanted a moral framework that absolved them of guilt while placing their will and desires at the center of what is great and good.  This may seem like a repetition of the second point, but every Wiccan I've known (even the "incel losers" for you modern cool kids) was into the 'pansexual' component of their faith.

What these people did not get were stable, wholesome relationships, or inner peace, or a sense of true salvation or prosperity, or any of the markers that I would seek.  They got drama, and lots of it and they seemed to feed off of it.  I'm not sure how they turned out, though I know a few who 'grew out of it' and returned to Christ.

My point is that while they didn't explicitly articulate those goals, those were their goals and their prayers for those goals were in fact answered.  Whether you choose to believe it was through behavioral choices or the offices of a Fallen Angel masquerading as "The Goddess" (or a combination of both, which is my belief), that's fine, but the outcome is unmistakable.

This was yesterday morning.  Yesterday evening I got word that one of my relatives had renounced Christianity and become pagan.  Right over the holidays!  How splendid.

The reason was she placed a premium on approving sexual license.  The homosexual and transsexual agendas are very important to her (she is neither, btw), and she felt that Christianity was wrong to condemn these behaviors.  Instead, she came up with a theory of reincarnation where people are reborn into the wrong bodies and struggle to reconcile the difference.

I give her points for not doing the Anglican thing and just ignoring the Biblical texts that contradict her views.  She's at least being honest in that respect.

But I think one can see what else is going on - that when faced with a conflict between current societal views (which are less than 25 years old) and ancient laws of faith, she throws the faith away.

This is how the Israelites consistently strayed - they wanted to fit in.  There was no logic to their actions, just as there is no logic in play here.  It's a religion made up on the fly and molded to justify whatever social pressures arise.

This malleability of faith features prominently in the writings of G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh and (in a more veiled form) those of J.R.R. Tolkien.  (It's interesting that the great villains of Middle Earth are Fallen Angels - Sauron, Saruman, and the Balrogs.)

Needless to say, we will pray for her and hope to bring her back to Christ.  I think many people have to stray and take a hard look at the alternatives to the Church before they appreciate what she has to offer.  Certainly I did.


The death of the 'slow news day'

I'm not sure when it happened, but some time ago news coverage shifted from a somewhat dry recitation of world events to breathless end-of-the-world pronouncements.

I remember watching the Evening News or World News Tonight or whatever and some days there just wasn't much going on.  On days like that, there were "human interest" stories that told about some inspirational person or a quirky event.

Part of the appeal of the movie Network was its concept of a network news division that went full-on tabloid-hysterical because the ratings were so good.  Howard Beale's rant was supposed to be comic excess, but it's now just another day at the office for media in 2021.

In Scoop, Evelyn Waugh poked fun at how bored reporters could try to gin up a crisis.  As was typical of his 1930s Smart Set books, he walked a fine line between credible satire and utter absurdity. 

Truth is of course stranger than fiction, and Waugh's imaginary Daily Beast is now an actual website (consciously named in imitation his work, of course).  It's just as unreliable.

This erosion of credibility was going on before the pandemic, but now it's pretty much a given that on any given day, some new item will be portrayed as the moral outrage of our time.

The problem is, when everything is a crisis, nothing is.

I think there's also a sense of people who no longer have a sense of history.  This is mated with the secularist vision of nothing more important than gratifying the need of the moment.   American culture has never been more obsessed with maintaining youthfulness or more terrified of death.

That's the counterpoint to the churn and burn on the front pages and the cable channels: the supermarket tabloids are running headlines that first premiered in the 1990s.

The Jennifer Anniston/Brad Pitt split happened decades ago, but it's still being updated.  I guess its comforting for people locked down and wearing masks to see that their entertainment idols are still the same as they ever were.

As for me, I'm limiting my news diet these days.  I decided to use some vacation this week, and I don't anticipate reading the news until Monday morning.   I'm looking forward to the break.