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S. M. Hutchens on the Endless Succession of Historical Jesuses
Only recently have I obtained The Screwtape Letters for my own library. It came to me upon my father’s death—the copy I had read as a boy in his house. I have probably referred to it somewhere in my published work, but it is the sort of book I generally avoid quoting. During most of my life it has been so well known that I find most references to Screwtape (by someone else) hackneyed, and it has been carried in memory well enough to support my own casual references.
I have needed, however, to develop scruples against this attitude, believing in principle that good books are worth re-reading and rehearsing to one’s own readers, worth reexamination by a mind significantly aged since the last consultation. So, after thirty or so years I have just re-read Screwtape.
It was as I remembered it, but one thing stood out that would not have caught my eye as a young man except perhaps as a truism. Now it seems a truth of such vital importance that those who do not come to it, or fail to understand it intuitively, are, theologically speaking, lambs to the slaughter, and certainly as such unable to resist heresy or serve the church as teachers.
Lewis has Screwtape put it this way: “In the last generation we promoted the construction of . . . a ‘historical Jesus’ on liberal and humanitarian lines; we are now putting forward a new ‘historical Jesus’ on Marxian, catastrophic, and revolutionary lines.” These constructions, “which we intend to change every thirty years or so,” he continues,
all tend to direct men’s devotion to something which does not exist, for each “historical Jesus” is unhistorical. The documents say what they say and cannot be added to; each new “historical Jesus” therefore has to be got out of them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another, and by that sort of guessing (“brilliant” is the adjective we teach humans to apply to it) on which no one would risk ten shillings in ordinary life.
If a new ahistorical “historical Jesus” makes a regular appearance, how has he done it in our own time? There can be only one answer to this: as the Jesus of egalitarianism. No better example may be found of feverish scholarly devotion to making the Scriptures say something other than what they obviously do by suppression of one point and exaggeration of another—the classical method of heresy.
The fictional Christs of current interest, of books like The Da Vinci Code and of gnosticism-put-forward-on-the-ignorant as re-discoveries of things suppressed by an ancient power-caste, should be seen as weird growths on the egalitarian body, not as potential “next waves.” This is not because they are fictions, but because, unlike egalitarianism, which attacks the Trinitarian root of Christian theology, they have of themselves no theory that presents a philosophical or theological challenge to orthodoxy.
Such frenzies, as Screwtape observes, cannot be sustained indefinitely. Since they are assaults a child can see through on a text that “says what it says and cannot be added to,” they can be maintained by forms of guile and effrontery that hold up only for so long. The cabals of intellectuals who do the maintaining by armor-plating themselves against the obvious, however, cannot escape their own internal weakness, as Screwtape, an academic himself, knew perfectly well.
A Replacement Jesus
Since they are easily bored, and paid for new “discoveries,” the time must come when someone happens upon the “brilliant” insight—brilliant not because some infant in the crowd has seen the emperor’s new clothes, but because an accredited member of the guild has correctly divined the kairotic moment at which he can get away with treating the old pretense as out of fashion—that Christianity is not, has never been, and cannot by any reasonable definition ever be, egalitarian.
This will be an epochal discovery, but one should not look forward to a mass return to orthodoxy as the result. The replacement will be something—anything—other than that. No apology to the orthodox and the more clear-sighted feminists, who understood this about Christianity all along, will be forthcoming, for those are, at least among “Christian” egalitarians, outsiders whose opinions have never counted.
The members of the superseded school will retire on their academic pensions, share their war stories among themselves, and die. The new school, succeeding to their offices and salaries, will invent its own Jesus by similar methods of suppression and exaggeration, and in thirty or so years (that is, about one academic generation) likewise be killed and devoured by its offspring.
For those who never joined the dance, however, this note must be made: A cardinal error does not only serve to exhibit the truth that rises against it, but encourages its opposite error.
The orthodox answer to egalitarianism is patriarchal, but it is not “patriarchalism.” It does not complement the egalitarian error by forming its other side, giving rise to the very systems of denigration and abuse of which egalitarians are constantly accusing their orthodox opponents—and into which people exasperated by egalitarian lies and follies may well be tempted.
It is rather the life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, lived by men who are created male and female in his image, each in the ways ordained for his sex. This life has a form that can be abused in manifold ways, each error having its polar counterpart, but none finding the Particular Thing, none comprehending the Divine Order, none able to acknowledge the truth in terms appropriate to the reality which is the mystery of life in God.
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.