Why Mencken Matters

He is a reminder that belief is not normal (to fallen human beings).

The reason for that aside is Regis Martin’s article about the stupidity of atheists (trigger warning for the w-w deniers):

…people do not arrive at atheism as a result of hours heuristically spent perusing the philosophical journals. That is because it is not a matter of the intelligence that compels one to choose disbelief, but a movement of the will. One would have to be pretty witless if, on the strength of a syllogism, one were to conclude that there is no God. An atheist can no more eliminate God’s existence by his refusal to believe than a blind man can by his inability to see expel the sunlight. “The essence of God does indeed lie beyond the scope of intelligence,” Fr. Murray freely concedes, “but his existence does not.” And not to know at least that much, “is to nullify oneself as a man, a creature of intelligence.” Because belief in God is, very simply, the bedrock truth upon which everything else depends. To think otherwise, he argues, amounts to “a miserably flat denouement to the great intellectual drama in whose opening scene Plato appeared with the astonishing announcement that launched the high action of philosophy—his insight that there is an order of transcendent reality, higher than the order of human intelligence and the measure of it, to which access is available to the mind of man.”

In which case, we should never trust an atheist or unbeliever with any sort of responsibility (and we should live in a Christendom because only God-affirmers have the bedrock for truth).

But what if faith is not natural? What if philosophical inquiry and logical deduction still don’t make a man or woman believe? What if, get this, Paul was right?

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1)

Imagine that: Reformed Protestants take atheists more seriously than Roman Catholics because of the doctrine of total depravity. If you start with the reality that all people are lost in their trespasses and sins, that their minds are “darkened” as a result, you set your expectations of unbelievers accordingly. But if you look at faith as the bedrock of understanding the world (think w-w), and you need to trust your neighbors not to do irrational things, then you are going to attribute belief in God to them (and meanwhile deny total depravity).

Mencken matters because he’s proof that unbelievers are smart, and that the Holy Spirit is more powerful than reason in giving people faith in Jesus Christ as their savior.

Noah Millman's On a Roll

First he renders Inside Llewyn Davis a great movie (I left the theater scratching my head about a good movie that defied the Coen’s conventions):

There’s a poetic rightness to the fact that “Inside Llewyn Davis,” one of the best films of the year, was not nominated for Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The latest from the Coen Brothers, “Inside Llewyn Davis” does just about everything it can to alienate voters, starting with the fact that it’s about a raging misanthrope. Like “Her” but in the opposite emotional key, this is another story where form and subject are perfectly mated, and where the story wouldn’t work at all if they were not.

The Coen Brothers have always been interested in losers. But never before have they gotten us so close to the heart of one of those losers, and a loser who knows that he deserves to win, and knows he just isn’t going to, and is consumed by the bitterness of that condition. Like “A Serious Man,” this feels like a very personal film for them, but whereas “A Serious Man” wrestled with origins – specifically their Jewish identity – “Inside Llewyn Davis” wrestles with destiny, and the possibility of not having one.

Played with wonderful naturalism by relative newcomer Oscar Isaac, Llewyn Davis is a folk singer in New York in 1961, right before folk is about to explode out of its niche with the emergence of Bob Dylan. But Llewyn isn’t going anywhere. He can’t afford even a rathole apartment downtown, and crashes on the couches of the vanishingly few New Yorkers who don’t hate his guts. One of them is his more successful friend’s wife (Carey Mulligan, giving a nicely subtle performance – watch her eyes while she sings), who informs him she’s knocked up, possibly by him. Another is an uptown academic couple who are faultlessly generous with him, and whose generosity he rewards by lashing out, cursing, saying he feels like a trained poodle.

He’s got more than his share of rotten luck – beaten up by inexplicably malevolent cowboys, robbed of even his minimal royalties by his rotten manager, trapped for hours on the way to Chicago with an outlandishly insulting old jazz man who won’t stop poking him with his canes (the only out-and-out Coen grotesque in the film, played by John Goodman). But he also makes his own bad luck, telling his sister (Jeanine Serralles) to throw out his old stuff (including his old mariner’s license, which he turns out to need), refusing royalties on a ridiculous novelty song that his friend (the one he cuckolded, played with delightfully deadpan squareness by Justin Timberlake) wrote so that he can get the cash quicker (only to see the song do well), and, when he finally gets a chance to audition for a manager who could really take him places (F. Murray Abraham), picking an obscure and depressing song guaranteed to turn him away. And his response to every piece of bad mazel he suffers is the same, whether he’s obviously implicated or not: a sour conviction that it figures, that the universe has it in for him one way or another.

With one exception. In what is certainly a screenwriting joke (given the ubiquity of Blake Snyder’s book) this deeply unattractive character does one noble thing. He saves a cat. Or tries to.

Then Millman wonders about the value of using w-w to debate atheists who use Pat Robertson as an interlocutor:

If I understand [Ross Douthat’s] argument now, it is that the new atheists’ worldview lacks “coherence” – whereas other world views, including some other varieties of atheism, would not lack that coherence so drastically.

I suspect that’s true. But what I would say in response is that virtually nobody has a “coherent” worldview. I’m pretty sure I don’t. And it’s only a certain sort of personality that feels a psychic need for a worldview characterized by coherence. I might even go further and say that some religions are more prone to seek that particular grail than others. I’d certainly rank Catholicism far higher on the “seeks coherence” scale than, say, Judaism, or the LDS Church, to say nothing of faith traditions like Hinduism that don’t even have a clear mechanism for defining the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, and that hence by definition cannot provide that kind of coherence.

If guys like Bryan Cross were to read more Millman and watch more movies by the Coens, would the Call to Communion be funnier and more effective?

Admirable Atheists

A number of Christian bloggers have felt obligated to comment on Christopher Hitchens’ recent death. Doug Wilson, who wrote the obituary for Christianity Today (and subsequently prompted Baylyan angst — how could a transformer write for a squishy evangelical publication?), set the tone for most Christian reflections:

Christopher knew that faithful Christians believe that it is appointed to man once to die, and after that the Judgment. He knew that we believe what Jesus taught about the reality of damnation. He also knew that we believe—for I told him—that in this life, the door of repentance is always open. A wise Puritan once noted what we learn from the last-minute conversion of the thief on the cross—one, that no one might despair, but only one, that no one might presume. We have no indication that Christopher ever called on the Lord before he died, and if he did not, then Scriptures plainly teach that he is lost forever. But we do have every indication that Christ died for sinners, men and women just like Christopher. We know that the Lord has more than once hired workers for his vineyard when the sun was almost down (Matt. 20:6).

In other words, the tendency for Christians has been to look at Hitchens through the lens of redemption — he did not confess Christ as Lord; he actually vigorously denied Christ; so Hitchens’ meaning is bound up with eternity.

This is all true. But Christians eager to defend the gospel often miss the creational side of Hitchens’ meaning. My one personal encounter with him came the year he gave the annual Mencken Lecture in Baltimore. It was one of the shortest forty minutes of my life (almost as quick and as witty as a talk my wife and I heard from Calvin Trillin almost thirty years ago in Boston). Hitchens seemed to be introducing the substance of his remarks the entire time and yet it turned out that his rapid-fire, riveting, and provocative introduction was the substance, and it left us wanting more. Hitchens then consented to sign books despite his obvious need for a cigarette (and probably a drink). His was a wonderful performance and would likely have received a hearty wink from Mencken himself.

The Mencken association is poignant for this blogger since this semester I offered a seminar on the Baltimore bad boy who was also a naysayer of God — often wittily, provocatively, and even thoughtfully. One of the aspects of Mencken that I came to admire — which applies to Hitchens as well — was the sheer ferocity and volume of his output. Although both men had “no reason” to work, or saw no ultimate meaning in their labors, that did not prevent them from continuing to sit at the key board and pound out essay after essay, book after book.

Another figure who fits here from my semester of teaching is Woody Allen, another skeptic well on record about his disbelief. Despite worries about the universe expanding and anguish over the miseries of life (humanity is divided into the horrible and the miserable), Allen has continued to write, direct, and star in movies at a pace unrivaled in the history of cinema.

We often hear of the Protestant work ethic but do we ever notice that prominent atheists have remarkable energies and discipline as well? Mencken may be the most remarkable because he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1948 that prevented him from writing for the last eight years of his life. How he went on is unimaginable, especially since he contemplated suicide, at least as a topic, in one of his 1920s essays.

The universal wisdom of the world long ago concluded that life is mainly a curse. Turn to the proverbial philosophy of any race, and you will find it full of a sense of the futility of the mundane struggle. Anticipation is better than realization. Disappointment is the lot of man. . . .

Yet we cling to it in a muddled physiological sort of way — or, perhaps more accurately, in a pathological way — and even try to fill it with gaudy hocus-pocus. All men who, in any true sense, are sentient strive mightily for distinction and power, i.e., for the respect and envy of their fellowsmen, i.e., for the ill-natured admiration of an endless series of miserable and ridiculous bags of rapidly disintegrating amino acides. Why? If I knew, I’d certainly not be writing books in this infernal American climate; I’d be sitting in a state in a hall of crystal and gold, and people would be paying $10 a head to gape at me through peep-holes. But though the central mystery remains, it is possible, perhaps, to investigate the superficial symptoms to some profit. I offer myself as a laboratory animal. Why have I worled so hard for thirty years, deperately striving to accomplish something that remains impenetrable to me to this day? Is it because I desire money? Bosh! I can’t recall ever desiring it for an instant: I have always found it easy to get all I wanted. Is it, then, notoriety that I am after? Again the answer must be no. The attention of strangers is unpleastant to me, and I avoid it as mush as possible. Then is it yearing to Do Good that moves me? Bosh and blah! If I am convineced of anything, it is that Doing Good is in bad taste. . . .

I work a great deal, but working is more agreeable to me than anything else I can imagine. . .

Whether or not Hitchens or Allen would share these notions, they do bear remarkable similarities to Mencken. And their work ethic is something that Christians should appreciate because — even though Hitchens, Mencken, and Allen would deny this — of their creatureliness. All people have been created to work. Some people excel at work more than others. Hitchens certainly did that (as did Mencken and as does Allen). Whatever these figures might say about God as redeemer, they do testify in important ways about God as creator, making is appropriate for Christians to give thanks for the incomparable product and productivity of these God deniers. After all, if Christians are only known for giving thanks for redemption, onlookers might reasonably conclude that believers are ingrates when it comes to all the other blessings of this mortal existence.