HEADlines: To Not Live by Lies: Pessimism or Reality?

Published in The Mustard Seed Sentinel, 5/22/2021.

The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means. Oscar Wilde~

I often show the movie The Natural in the classroom. And unlike what you might predict a teacher would do, I warn students against reading the book.

Spoiler alert for both: The movie ends happily; the book does not.

Bernard Malamud, author of the book The Natural, was born in Brooklyn, the son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents. He grew up to be an acclaimed American writer. When he attended a premiere of the movie based on his book, he exclaimed, “At last, I’m an American writer.”

His book was the type of fiction Russians, over the ages, had come to expect. In Russia and later the Soviet Union, people, Jews especially, lived under oppression. Those who live under such conditions don’t come to expect a happy ending in their literature or in their lives.

The movie, which revised Roy Hobbs’s story without Malamud’s input, has a happy, even joyful, ending. The book’s pessimism marks Malamud as a Russian writer. The movie’s optimism transformed him into an American one.

“It’s the only movie that’s better than the book,” I’ve told my students.

We all like a happy ending. That, perhaps, explains why I’ve discouraged students from the book. I hold the optimism of America in my heart. America has always been the better place–the place others come to escape oppression, famine, and trials.

But I also live in the real world, so I must accept that I have no guarantee of a happy ending just because of geography.

Some might call me a realist. Others could say I’m a pessimist.

Photo Credit: Goodreads

In his new book Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, Rod Dreher advises that we need to “throw away the crippling nostalgia for the future, especially the habit we Americans, a naturally optimistic people, have of assuming that everything will ultimately work out for the best.”

Many name Rod Dreher among the pessimists of the world, the Eeyores who cannot see good. These critics reject his arguments, claiming “he’s too negative.”

They assume an optimism about America’s future as if it’s a guarantee from God.

Even so, Dreher presents an optimism that begins with the resolve that “Christians must not surrender hope.” The harbingers that testify to coming oppression on the horizon could be delayed, even blocked.

Something positive could turn events around.

Yet, the focus on the book is on what must we do to prepare in case the best-case scenario doesn’t happen?

We can soak in the stories of those who’ve been through persecution and oppression behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Dreher lets them tell their stories throughout his text.

While he assures us that Christians are not obligated to pursue persecution, we are obligated to honor God through it should it come to us.

And his conclusion? Optimism. But of a sort we didn’t expect,

It’s a great irony of history that Christianity thrives best in persecution and seems to die on the vine of comfort and ease.

He presents the family of Vaclav Benda who embraced discomfort–to the point of Vaclav’s imprisonment. The simple refusal to go along, to deny truth, was all it took.

The mother of the family together with her children pursued truth and worked to undermine the oppressors. The poverty resulting from the absence of the family breadwinner, and his inability to work in his field upon his release meant the children wore clothes that weren’t cool.

While the kids didn’t fit in at school, they were part of an effort, one they understood to be important.

“Vaclav Benda taught that the family does not exist for its own purpose but for the service of something beyond itself.”

Today, in freedom, after the passing of their patriarch, the grown Benda children live in faith.

They know what many today do not. Community with purpose gives life meaning. The isolation and purposelessness our society foists upon us are missing in the lives of dissidents. Dissidents share purpose and meaning. They live in community.

And while living in community is often dangerous, it also lends itself toward ministry in a way isolation cannot.

Dreher quotes Pawel Keska who tells the story of one man who “was constantly observed by the secret police, parked right in front of his home. During the severely cold winters, he would bring them hot tea to warm them up. Because they were people . . .”

Dreher’s primary mandate for readers is that we have our spiritual lives in order.

“A time of painful testing, even persecution, is coming. Lukewarm or shallow Christians will not come through with their faith intact. Christians today must dig deep into the Bible and church tradition and teach themselves how and why today’s post-Christian world, with its self-centeredness , its quest for happiness and rejection of sacred order and transcendent values, is a rival religion to authentic Christianity.”

And the book presents an authentic Christianity unlike what we in the comfortable West have lived. He shows us a picture of what our comfort has taken from us.

Joy is not something Christians can conjure. We often experience pleasure and equate it with joy.

And we don’t imagine having joy in a smelly prison where we and those around us regularly undergo torture–even execution.

Dreher quotes George Calciu: “We were in a cell without windows, without air, humid, filthy–yet we had moments of happiness [joy] that we never reached in freedom. I cannot explain it.”

The book is supremely optimistic in revealing God’s faithfulness to his people who remain faithful in Him, sometimes even unto death.

Dreher’s primary call to action for us: We must put our spiritual lives in order. We must resolve to live not by lies.

We begin with ourselves and our families.

“Christians should stop taking family life for granted, instead approaching it in a more thoughtful, disciplined way. We cannot simply live as all other families live, except that we go to church on Sunday.”

We can hold to the truth that God promises His best to those who remain faithful to him no matter what.

We must reject the lie that He has promised us a happy ending in the here and now without any sacrifice on our part.

We can live not by lies.

Top Photo Credit: Unsplash

Nancy E. Head’s Restoring the Shattered is out in paperback! Get your copy here!

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you credit the author.

Disclosure of Material Connection:  I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the entities I have mentioned. Restoring the Shattered is published through Morgan James Publishing with whom I do share a material connection. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Too Many Evenings

“The trouble with socialism,” said Oscar Wilde, “is that it would take up too many evenings.”

Some might argue whether what we are dealing with, what is ahead for us, is socialism. But we can’t dispute that our thinking and conversations (and social media interactions) about the state of America are consuming our evenings (and much of the rest of the day, as well).

In Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, Alan Jacobs tells us about Horace–a political dissident in exile. A friend bestows the gift of a farm on Horace, who, separated from the engagement he enjoyed in Rome, begins to write letters, poetry actually, to advise others–and us.

Jacobs writes, “It is useful to see that these anxieties have plagued people who lived so long ago, even if we feel [these same anxieties] with particular intensity today. . . .

“Horace exhorts [his reader], exhorts himself, exhorts us, to shift our attention from those compulsions [our fears] toward questions that really and always matter–‘Where is it virtue comes from?’–because even by just exploring those questions, . . . we’re pushing back against the tyranny of everyday anxieties.”

I’m not suggesting–and I don’t believe Jacobs is either–that we stick our heads in the sands of old books and disregard what’s going on around us.

Instead, we can use older texts. He’s thinking ancient. I’m currently reading a 1960s text about a great ancient–Cicero.

To each his own form of processing.

But many, Jacobs asserts, won’t look to the past because of a way of thinking that’s emerged in recent times.

“There is an increasing sense not just that the past is sadly in error, is superannuated and irrelevant and full of foul ideas that we’re well rid of, but that it actually defiles us–its presence makes us unclean.

Jacobs asserts that this sense of defilement results from information overload and the sense that the “world is not only changing but changing faster and faster.”

As we yearn to slow down, the world moves at a faster pace. That pace and the direction of the change that’s unfolding seem daunting.

Part of that slowing down, Jacobs asserts, is to feed our minds the bread of the past, of the dead, and to feed it to children as well.

“The dead, being dead, speak only at our invitation: they will not come uninvited to our table. They are at our mercy, like the flock of shades who gather around Odysseus when he comes as a living man to the land of Hades.”

And let’s remember what Odysseus received during his visit to Hades: wisdom telling him how to go forward into an uncertain future filled with all kinds of perils.

We can look back for that same kind of wisdom.

It awaits our attention. And it withholds its benefits until we sit with it and partake.

Photo Credit: Unsplash

Nancy E. Head’s Restoring the Shattered is out in paperback! Get your copy here!

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you credit the author.

Disclosure of Material Connection:  I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the entities I have mentioned. Restoring the Shattered is published through Morgan James Publishing with whom I do share a material connection. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”