H. L. Mencken Wasn't Roman Catholic and He Could Write

First Christian presidents and now Peter Leithart explores Christian writers. Why do Christians feel the need to describe human activities in the context of sanctification? Isn’t that a tad provincial?

Leithart’s argument is that because Roman Catholics rely more on sacraments than Protestants who treat them as merely symbols, Roman Catholicism produces better writers:

Marburg is important not so much for what it achieved but as a symbol of what it failed to achieve. It provides a symbolic marker not only for the parting of the ways between Lutheran and Zwinglian, but also, for Zwinglians, the final parting of the ways between symbol and reality. J. P. Singh Uberoi claimed that “Spirit, word and sign had finally parted company at Marburg in 1529. For centuries, Christian sacramental theology had held symbol and reality together in an unsteady tension, but that alliance was ruptured by the Zwinglian view of the real presence. For Zwingli, “myth or ritual . . . was no longer literally and symbolically real and true.” In short, “Zwingli was the chief architect of the new schism and . . . Europe and the world followed Zwingli in the event.”

For many post-Marburg Protestants, literal truth is over here, while symbols drift off in another direction. At best, they live in adjoining rooms; at worst, in widely separated neighborhoods, and they definitely inhabit different academic departments.

Here is a thesis, which I offer in a gleeful fit of reductionism: Modern Protestants can’t write because we have no sacramental theology. Protestants will learn to write when we have reckoned with the tragic results of Marburg, and have exorcised the ghost of Zwingli from our poetics. Protestants need not give up our Protestantism to do this, as there are abundant sacramental resources within our own tradition. But contemporary Protestants do need to give up the instinctive anti-sacramentalism that infects so much of Protestantism, especially American Protestantism.

And Reformed Protestantism is particularly lacking:

Many Protestant churches (often the didactic ones) celebrate the Eucharist infrequently; many are deliberately, self-consciously anti-sacramental. Their worship consists of teaching but not doing, word but not sign. When they do celebrate the Supper, many Protestant churches are informed that it is a sign rather than a reality.

This is a simplification of what goes on in many Protestant churches. It is not, I think, a caricature.

The argument, based on the assumption and the assertion, comes in several stages: Churches whose worship focuses on didactic, doctrinal teaching are going to shape minds, imaginations, and hearts in a particular way. Churches with infrequent communion, and churches that treat communion as “mere sign” are also shaping the imaginative lives of their members.

Churches with didactic preaching and unsacramental worship, I submit, do not produce poets.

A poetic imagination is cultivated in churches where the beauty of Scripture is as important as its truth. Poetic imagination is cultivated in churches that celebrate Eucharist regularly. Every week, their worship climaxes with a great sacramental metaphor, a metaphor that is more than metaphor, a metaphor that also states (in some fashion) what is the case: “This is my body. This is my blood.”

By this argument, some forms of Protestantism – Anglicans with their prayer books and Eucharistic piety, Lutherans with their ins-withs-unders – are more conducive to cultivating poetic imagination than others.

What Leithart doesn’t consider apparently is that the logocentric quality of Protestantism, attention to the meaning of Greek and Hebrew involved in the study of Scripture, consideration of different biblical genres, or even the oratory involved in preaching — all of these could fire the imagination and fascinate young boys and girls with words in a way that could create good writing every bit as much as looking at statues, paintings, a wafer, and a chalice from which you’re never served.

At the same time, what does Leithart do with all those good writers who have no dog in the hunt of Christianity, like H. L. Mencken, who somehow learned to write even without going to church:

. . . the people of New York do even worse; they eat Chesapeake soft crabs fried in batter! What is cannibalism after that? I’d as lief eat a stewed archdeacon. Think of immersing a delicate and sensitive soft crab, the noblest of decapods, in a foul mess of batter, drenching it and blinding it, defacing it and smothering it — and then frying it in a pan like some ignoble piece of Pennsylvania scrapple. As well boil a cocktail, or a smelt, or a canvasback duck.

There is, of course, but one civilized way to prepare soft crabs for the human esophagus, and it goes without saying that it is the one way never heard of by the Greek bootblacks who pass as chefs in New York. It is, like all the major processes of the bozart, quite simple in its essence. One rids the crab of its seaweed, removes the devil, and then spears it with a long, steel fork upon the prongs of which a piece of country bacon, perhaps three inches long, has already made fast. Then one holds the combination over a brazier of glowing charcoal or a fire of hickory . . ., say three or four minutes.

What happens belongs to the very elements of cookery. The bacon, melted by the heat, runs down over the crab, greasing it and salting it, and the crab, thus heated, greased and salted, takes on an almost indescribable crispness and flavor. Nothing imaginable by the mind of man could be more delicious. It is a flavor with body, delicacy and character. Slap the crab upon a square of hot toast and then have at it. (“Callinectes Hastatus,” from The Impossible Mencken, 449)

The man could write and eat.

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27 thoughts on “H. L. Mencken Wasn't Roman Catholic and He Could Write

  1. Right, but when you come home to rome you can believe in magic again. Duh. And Carlin and Thompson swore that drugs could open the vistas of the mind like a mother………

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  2. Milton, Bunyan, Hemingway, Frost, Steinbeck, Updike, Vonnegut, Faulkner, Lee, Blake, Tolstoy (does he count as one who rejected sacramentalism?)… imagine what they could have done with a “sacramental view”. Then there are modern writers like Grisham…not exactly Shakespeare, but a pretty prolific producer of page-turners nonetheless. Marilynne Robinson isn’t exactly a slouch either. It’s almost like there is some other variable at work here?

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  3. sub – yeah, I was thinking exactly the same thing. In particular, I wonder what Updike would have though about Leithart’s remarks. He was not one to mix words when it came to criticism of his literary style.

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  4. Mencken —“If George Washington were alive today, what a shining mark he would be for the professional patriots! He was the Rockefeller of his time, the richest man in the United States, a promoter of stock companies, a land-grabber, an exploiter of mines and timber. He was a bitter opponent of foreign entanglements, and denounces their evils in harsh, specific terms. He was not pious. He drank whiskey whenever he felt chilly, and kept a jug of it handy. He knew far more profanity than Scripture, and used and enjoyed it more. He had no belief in the infallible wisdom of the common people, but regarded them as inflammatory dolts, and tried to save the Republic from them. He took no interest in the private morals of his neighbors.”

    In the Nevin headquarters, being a honest atheist is better than being a “Zwinglian” because “Zwinglians” are so rational that “Zwinglians” won’t even admit that “take eat and remember” is not something we do but something God does to give us grace.

    Peter Leithart–Here is a spiritualizing reading of redemptive history. “When Jesus removed the special status of Jerusalem as the place where God was to be worshiped, he abolished all the material forms that constituted the typological OT system.’ (Terry Johnson, p 157, in With Reverence and Awe, ed Hart and Muether).”

    Peter Leithart: “Calvin was fatally wrong in suggesting that Galatianism was found wherever there is an emphasis on ritual. Calvin not withstanding, the redemptive-historical move that the New
    Testament announces is not from ritual to non-ritual, not from an Old Covenant economy of signs to a New Covenant economy beyond signs.” Against Christianity, p 80

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/mencken-on-women/?mc_cid=6f8d32fd37&mc_eid=fb0fd7ebf6

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  5. “I simply like elements in the culture too much, and I don’t think it makes me an ‘assimilationist.’

    Andrew Petiprin‘—As I step back and consider the Church’s heritage and vocation. And in this way, I realize that my ecclesiology is much, much higher…. I know that grace is everywhere. The whole universe is sacramental; and yet, the Church has been given guaranteed means of grace that the world needs. As this relates to Beauty, the Church must be intentional about sub-creating with God for the life of the world. We know who Jesus is in ways that the world does not. We know the story of salvation and we must tell it. We are smuggling Truth and Beauty out from within, infecting those who encounter it. Again, as Solzhenitsyn argues, beauty “prevails even over a resisting heart.”

    http://livingchurch.org/covenant/2016/02/01/beauty-will-save-the-world/

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  6. Scrapple. Is. Wonderful. It is on my list of top three items to seek out when I return to PA to visit family. Ignoble, yes.

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  7. McMark, if the whole world is sacramental, what keeps us from worshiping trees the way our pagan ancestors did? Is Christianity just a better brand of paganism, the Roman Catholicism is Christianity 10.0?

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  8. @McMark,

    Beauty. The idol of fallen creation, from Ezekiel 28:

    “Therefore, behold, I will bring strangers upon you, The most ruthless of the nations. And they will draw their swords Against the beauty of your wisdom And defile your splendor.
    8 ‘They will bring you down to the pit, And you will die the death of those who are slain In the heart of the seas.
    9 ‘Will you still say, “I am a god,” In the presence of your slayer, Though you are a man and not God, In the hands of those who wound you?
    10 ‘You will die the death of the uncircumcised By the hand of strangers, For I have spoken!’ declares the Lord GOD!”‘”
    11 Again the word of the LORD came to me saying,
    12 “Son of man, take up a lamentation over the king of Tyre and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “You had the seal of perfection, Full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
    13 “You were in Eden, the garden of God; Every precious stone was your covering: The ruby, the topaz and the diamond; The beryl, the onyx and the jasper; The lapis lazuli, the turquoise and the emerald; And the gold, the workmanship of your settings and sockets, Was in you. On the day that you were created They were prepared.
    14 “You were the anointed cherub who covers, And I placed you there. You were on the holy mountain of God; You walked in the midst of the stones of fire.
    15 “You were blameless in your ways From the day you were created Until unrighteousness was found in you.
    16 “By the abundance of your trade You were internally filled with violence, And you sinned; Therefore I have cast you as profane From the mountain of God. And I have destroyed you, O covering cherub, From the midst of the stones of fire.
    17 “Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty….

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  9. DG: The man could write and eat.

    and what? you hope he enjoyed it a-really-lot, cause that was the best it would ever be for him?

    When I die, I shall be content to vanish into nothingness…. No show, however good, could conceivably be good forever. I do not believe in immortality, and have no desire for it.— H L Mencken,

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  10. This reporter says that nothing is “sacramental”.

    Calvin—“When it is said that God purifies his church to be without blemish, he promises this cleansing by baptism.”.

    Not true–not at all what Ephesians 5 teaches, even though it’s taught in some confessions.

    John Calvin—“The integrity of the sacrament lies here, that the flesh and blood of Christ are not less truly given to the unworthy than to the elect believers of God; and yet it is true, that just as the rain falling on the hard rock runs away because it cannot penetrate, so the wicked by their hardness repel the grace of God, and prevent it from reaching them…There are some who define the eating of the flesh of Christ, and the drinking of his blood, to be, in one word, nothing more than believing in Christ himself. But Christ seems to me to have intended to teach something more sublime in that noble discourse, in which he recommends the eating of his flesh—viz. that we are quickened by the true partaking of him, which he designated by the terms eating and drinking, lest any one should suppose that the life which we obtain from him is obtained by simple knowledge.”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/09/02/a-georgia-public-school-is-investigating-a-mass-baptism-on-its-football-field/

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  11. “and what? you hope he enjoyed it a-really-lot, cause that was the best it would ever be for him?”

    I’m curious Ali, did you really not get the point? X says low church christians can’t write because they lack a sacramental view. Do you agree with him? DGH pointed out a nonbeliever with out even an ounce of sympathy withfor sacramentalism could write. Of course it doesn’t do him any good in eternity, but it falsifies the assertion that sacramentalism is a necessary condition for being a good writer. Now maybe X has fiction in mind? I pointed out several fiction writers lacking sacramental view who could write well. Point is not that Hemmingway was justified before God by writing well…do you honestly think anyone here would think so?

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  12. @DGH,

    True. Beauty is in because the cross, that hideous thing, wasn’t necessary. So says the guy with a cap who ought to know better by his last name alone.

    Actually, I was thinking of Leithart. How long til he discovers the RC beauty of Jesus-in-a-biscuit?

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  13. Ali, you do understand that the incarnation, Jesus Christ, the gospel and glory makes the most sense in light of the accurate portrayals, good and bad, of the human experience, right? The stuff you peddle runs from simpleton pep rally to a con job. The gospel really can bear the entire human condition. That’s not a plea for self-indulgent authenticity, but a call to be honest or at least mature about our plight in this life. You need to have actual regret and joy and happiness and disappointment and faith and doubt, not manufactured piety and a religious veneer at all costs. It doesn’t save or compel one to come to Christ and people who have a few years under their belt, see right through it or they should.

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  14. DGHart: Ali, Mencken was also honest.

    well, maybe, if we say truth is relative to whatever we decide to think and is ‘truth for me’; hard to call ‘honesty’ a virtue, when it’s combined with being deceived, because the deceived are deceivers. I notice his quotes are boasted on a lot of atheist sites. He seems like he was a real piece of work.

    Mencken:
    The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected.

    Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable…. A man full of faith is simply one who has lost (or never had) the capacity for clear and realistic thought. He is not a mere ass: he is actually ill.

    God is the immemorial refuge of the incompetent, the helpless, the miserable.

    What I got in Sunday school … was simply a firm conviction that the Christian faith was full of palpable absurdities, and the Christian God preposterous…. The act of worship, as carried on by Christians, seems to me to be debasing rather than ennobling. It involves groveling before a being who, if he really exists, deserves to be denounced instead of respected.

    sdb, I’m curious Ali, did you really not get the point? X says low church christians can’t write because they lack a sacramental view. Do you agree with him? DGH pointed out a nonbeliever with out even an ounce of sympathy withfor sacramentalism could write. Of course it doesn’t do him any good in eternity, but it falsifies the assertion that sacramentalism is a necessary condition for being a good writer. Now maybe X has fiction in mind? I pointed out several fiction writers lacking sacramental view who could write well. Point is not that Hemmingway was justified before God by writing well…do you honestly think anyone here would think so?

    Hi sdb. I get the point – and so ridiculous in my mind- I moved on to DG’s last statement. I usually appreciate his last statements because they are simple and usually prompt some corollary thought – not necessary specifically germane to the exact main point -but usually germane in some way, at least to me-just my own musing -which is not always linear -and here in this case -the vanity of it all, without the hope of Christ;
    Anyway, hope you don’t mind, and hopefully you can know you don’t need to be so sensitive, thinking I’m always making some accusation of you.

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  15. Ali, so you’re one of those who affirms the anti-thesis and then turns around is shocked, shocked that an unbeliever doesn’t sing the same pieties or quote the Bible the way you do.

    You must be a Trump voter.

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  16. Ali, it’s a really long walk. Let’s just say, if you actually practice or try to practice some of the ‘exhortations’ you put out here, it resembles a lot of the superstitious goobledy gook, except it’s biblicism not llighting candles and crossing onesself, that many a devout RC engages in.

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  17. @ali pretty sure no one will ever accuse you of being perspicuous…even with the availability of the author. Pretty sure that throws yet another monkey wrench in cvds apologetic, but I lack the stamina to connect all the dots. Alas…

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  18. sean:Ali, it’s a really long walk. Let’s just say, if you actually practice or try to practice some of the ‘exhortations’ you put out here, it resembles a lot of the superstitious goobledy gook, except it’s biblicism not llighting candles and crossing onesself, that many a devout RC engages in.

    Dear Sean, huh?

    also, Dear Sean, just for you today (‘caue I knew you would like it):

    High degrees of Christian assurance are simply not compatible with low levels of obedience. —Sinclair Ferguson http://www.challies.com/a-la-carte/a-la-carte-february-8#keep-reading

    1 Peter 1 (NASB) A Living Hope, and a Sure Salvation
    1To those who are chosen 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to OBEY Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure…14 As OBEDIENT children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, 15 but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; 16 because it is written, “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.”… 22 Since you have in OBEDIENCE to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, 23 for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.

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  19. Sdb: ali pretty sure no one will ever accuse you of being perspicuous

    really, oh boy, hope I didn’t learn it here with all the confusing ‘provisional’ truth and knowledge talk and etc, others things.; anyway, we do all have our blind spots – I thought it was very clear -ie bottomline- the vanity of it all without the hope of Christ.

    Sdb: even with the availability of the author. Pretty sure that throws yet another monkey wrench in cvds apologetic, but I lack the stamina to connect all the dots. Alas…

    huh?

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  20. Ali, concerning that 1 Peter passage, it is important to ask “What does it mean to ‘obey/do the truth’?”

    We need to know what the gospel is. And we need to say that those who reject the gospel are condemned already. John 3:17-21 “He who DOES THE TRUTH comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”

    There is no pleasing God without faith in God’s gospel. We “do the truth” only when we confess that salvation is not caused by our deeds but “done in God”. The “good works” of Christians are necessary but they are not “good works” unless the sinner has understood that his salvation is conditioned on what God did at the cross and not on these works. Faith must exclude itself as the condition of salvation, or it is not faith in the gospel and is not pleasing to God.

    Workers must exclude works as the condition of salvation, or they are not ‘good works” and the people who do them are elder brothers, not yet in the family of God, but still lost in their sins. Elder brothers do not “do the truth”. They can talk much of their works, but they will not bring these works to the light of the true gospel, for the true gospel would say that their works were not acceptable.

    https://markmcculley.wordpress.com/2016/01/30/since-god-is-sovereign-does-it-even-matter-how-precise-you-are-about-the-gospel/

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  21. Hi Walton, I just like to go with God’s word. His word is a gift; His Word is a gift; sight is a gift ;salvation is a gift; faith is a gift ….have a great day – this day – a gift.

    by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. Eph 2:8-9

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