Religion

He Speaks Our Language

Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in Washington, D.C., December 3, 2018. (Jabin Botsford/Pool via Reuters )
I need more than allegorical suggestion. I need instruction.

Editor’s Note: The piece is the third in a five-part series. The first two can be found here and here

In this matter of psephological sorting, which is the bitter residue of the Left’s mania for hardening our political categories, you can mark me down, at least provisionally, as an Angry White Male.

I met Brett Kavanaugh back in the Nineties and then watched with swelling admiration as he made his name the hard, old-fashioned way — pursuing high station with Stakhanovite purpose. A few months ago, I watched the United States Senate, once described as the world’s greatest deliberative body, divide evenly on the question of Brett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. One half of the Senators were impressed by extraordinary achievement. The other half placed greater weight, or so they said, on unsupported allegation.

On the evening before the final vote, I found myself praying. I prayed for Brett. I prayed for my country. I even prayed for the Democratic party, which was once described as a great political institution. I prayed that 49 Democratic Senators would not be unanimous in ignoring the evidence and presuming Brett’s guilt.

My prayers were answered, I suppose you could say. Brett was confirmed, and Joe Manchin, his mind concentrated by imminent encounter with the electorate, voted “aye.” But the official photograph of Brett’s swearing-in by Chief Justice Roberts may have been worth a thousand prayers. Brett’s wife, taut and tearful as she holds the Bible, and his daughters, both of them drawn and wary, look as if they’ve stayed overlong at the funeral of a favorite uncle. They don’t look as if their prayers have been answered.

*************

As you can see, I’m new at this business. Praying, that is. With my devotional habits unformed, and the guide rails still in the packing crate, I have been wildly promiscuous, spraying off prayers in all directions and on too many quotidian occasions. When I pause to think about it, of course, I understand that it is not in His nature to fire up a 24/7 Help Line for the resolution of my passing whims, be they political, social, animal, or vegetable. (This praying has always been a tricky business. George Carlin, who was the last of our truly incorrect comedians, was once asked if he prayed. A famously lapsed Catholic, Carlin replied, “Sure, but not to God. I pray to Joe Pesci. He seemed like a guy who could get things done.”)

My problem is that I don’t pause to think about it. I now leap to prayer as a first resort. I’m the boy who can’t wait to take his bike for a spin on birthday morning. Plainly, I need some structure to this new life of prayer, some rigor that, it would seem, does not come pre-assembled from the packing crate. The last thing I want is for Him to check Caller ID, mutter “Oh, him again” and then make Himself unavailable.

I’ve thus started where I’ve been told to start by those older and more secure in the faith: with the most dazzling and redundantly celebrated apologists in the Christian pantheon. (A Washington friend, inevitably, is already calling this journey my apology tour.) And as an orderly sort, I’ve proceeded in alphabetical rank, beginning with Belloc before moving on to Chesterton. After each essay, each tract, each lambent sentence, I feel like saying to the authors, “Charmed, I’m sure.” Both of them are erudite and unflagging and, when you least expect it, esoterically amusing. The problem, for me at least, is that they seem to be speaking intramurally, as if they are defending Christianity from inside the fortified walls of a remote faith village. I’m a hard case. I need more than rebuttal to the blaring secular voice. I need to be moved from where I am, which is decidedly extramural, to where they are, which from all appearance is safely at home in the grace of God.

It was with receding expectations, then, that I turned to Clive Staples Lewis. I doubt that a year has gone by over the past half-century when I have not been urged by at least one friend to spend quality time with the legendary professor. (He would have been more legendary still had he not died the same day an American president was assassinated in Dallas.) I remember the day I was first so importuned. The friend, improbably, was Charles W. Colson, a senior aide in the Nixon White House, who all these years later is still identified in the press as a “Watergate conspirator.” (He wasn’t. He was a conspirator in the Daniel Ellsberg case, for which he paid in hard jail time.) Colson’s brand of politics made MSNBC’s Chris Matthews look like he’s playing Nerf Ball. On a shelf overhanging the guest chairs in Colson’s office, he placed a sign that epitomized his tactical approach. It read, “When you’ve got ‘em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” This was in the Nixon White House, mind you, which was in terms of social convention at least, the Pat Nixon White House.

For all his faux-swagger, Chuck Colson may have been the most able man I’ve ever met, by which I mean to say that he could get big things done with little time to do them. An Ivy Leaguer’s brain, a Marine’s brawn, a zealot’s passion — Colson was the ultimate organizational weapon. One sultry afternoon in 1973, I was dining in an unfashionable Washington restaurant with my friend John Sears, a White House political aide then slightly junior to Colson in the Haldeman pecking order. As was the custom in those days, a vendor scooted through the tables with copies of the city’s great afternoon newspaper, the Washington Star. (It was great, among a few other reasons, for employing me for a time.) The lead story, splashed across the front page, reported that Chuck Colson had converted to Christianity. I arched an eyebrow and tossed the paper to Sears, who read the first few paragraphs and then said with profound professional respect, “If Colson’s turned to Christ, the Devil better watch his ass.” Indeed. Colson soon started the most ambitious prison ministry in the history of Christendom.

I took it to heart, then — as more of a directive than a suggestion — when Colson, then recently indicted for high crimes and felonies, sent me a note saying that Lewis’ Mere Christianity had saved his life and was likely to save mine. (My copy is so well-thumbed that Colson may have sent me his own copy. Memory fails.) I plunged in straightaway, working my way through a volume that, frankly, I found to be a hard, uphill slog. It had no . . . rhythm. The book is, basically, a compilation of BBC radio scripts — Churchill thought Lewis could bring a bit of spiritual uplift to wartime Britain, which he doubtless did — and is thus written for the ear rather than the eye. One of my own (multiple) occupational sins has been the writing of television scripts for more than twenty years, during which time I drained more poetry from the English language than most Lit majors have read in a lifetime. To this day, when I read a broadcast script I am distracted by the stylistic artifice and am left unbudged by either argument or rhetoric. (Now, if the good professor had done me the courtesy of reading Mere Christianity aloud in a perfectly modulated Oxbridge accent, well, perhaps my experience with it would have been more satisfying.)

In recent months, I have worked my way across the balance of the Lewis bookshelf, a formidable collection that includes, notably, the Narnia stories and The Screwtape Letters and, not quite so notably, The Space Trilogy. Not to overstate my disappointment with these almost universally beloved books, but they did nothing for me beyond the provision of pleasant diversion. Lewis writes memorably, and tellingly, but in my own underdeveloped condition I need more than allegorical suggestion. I need instruction.

I don’t mean to suggest that my inquiry has been the death march of faith journeys. Not at all. From the first day, from the very first page of the very first book, I have been enriched: My understanding of the Christian proposition has been much enlarged and much improved. But after full immersion in the literary world of C. S. Lewis, I had almost resigned myself to a non-speaking role in the endless conversation about “the mystery of faith.” I had almost abandoned hope for an actual conversion to faith.

It thus came as a stroke of luck, or perhaps as a providential nudge, when I stumbled across a trove of Lewis’ private correspondence. It seems that I have not been alone in the professor’s waiting room. Many of his readers over the years have wanted to know exactly what I want to know — Yes, yes, Professor, but what does the story mean? How can I apply your allusive insights to my own life? How can I find Him? And most immediately of all, will my prayers ever really make a difference? In his responses to these private entreaties, Lewis had been blessedly didactic.

As just one example plucked from dozens, here is Lewis dispensing compacted wisdom on the value of prayer: “There is no question whether an event has happened because of your prayer. When the event you prayed for occurs, your prayer has always contributed to it. When the opposite event occurs, your prayer has never been ignored; it has been considered and refused, for your ultimate good and the good of the whole universe. (For example, because it is better for you and for everyone else in the long run that other people, including wicked ones, should exercise free will than that you should be protected from cruelty or treachery by turning the human race into automata.)”

Read that passage again. This man is speaking our language.

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Neal B. Freeman is a former editor and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line.

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