The Master's Voice by Anthony Esolen


The Master's Voice

Our Choice Is Obedience or Jesus as Anti-Christ

Thomas Jefferson, that freethinker with an odd and persistent strain of conservatism, fashioned his own New Testament by removing from it all of the accounts of Jesus' miracles. That was his piety at work, such as it was, as also when he attended services on his plantation, and the tears welled up in his eyes when he heard the old hymns he could no longer sing.

For well over a hundred years, even Unitarians were "Christian" in this sense: they believed in the Fatherhood of God, and they believed that the moral teachings of Jesus Christ were the highest and noblest ever to be revealed to man. It was natural in such heterodox Christians as Harry Emerson Fosdick to judge a nation's progress by how well it lived up to "Christlike graces" "in the fight to set men free," as he put it in a hymn I find hard to sing when I remember who wrote it. Even Fosdick, I hope, did not judge the teachings of Jesus by how well they conformed to a secular idea of progress.

Of course that reverence could not last, because the Jesus who preached his message of holiness was the same Jesus who worked wonders, who claimed that he was the Son of God, and who rose from the dead. Whence Saint Paul said that if Christ has not risen from the dead, we are above all men most to be pitied. If there is no resurrection, if there is no judgment, then we may as well eat, drink, and be merry, or, what amounts to much the same thing in the end, steal and smash and slay. "No pleasure but in meanness," says Flannery O'Connor's theological Misfit.

A book full of holes is not long for the world. Jefferson retained the teachings of Jesus because he revered them. Our age has punched its holes in what Jefferson left intact, so that now, for most people, the New Testament is a couple of shreds in an American garbage dump:

Judge not lest ye b
   shalt love the L       neighbor as
      od is Lov
   not as the hypocrites
            nor do I condemn you, go

Odium Christi, Old & New

And that's it. Jesus is not only forbidden to name himself and to heal the blind, the deaf, and the lame. He is not only forbidden to rise from the dead. He is forbidden to preach, unless he preaches what rebukes no one except those who still listen to what he preaches. He is a Jesus of the Subjunctive Mood, who would say what we want him to say, were he alive, which he is not. He is not the Jesus who did say what he said and who still says it. He is Jesus as Anti-Christ.

Call it a new odium Christi.

The old odium Christi is easier to diagnose. It explains the otherwise inexplicable—it explains, for example, why Western secularists are so happy to welcome Mohammed into their midst. Mohammed makes no claims upon them. They would flock to mosques as to museums, hugging themselves for their multicultural sensibilities, and then go forth to fornicate and to fleece their countrymen with all the better cheer—they would, if the Muslims would tolerate the impertinence. The old odium Christi explains why Christians in the Middle East can be driven from their homes, raped, and murdered, without a peep from the secular West. I have seen the photo of a young Christian boy, grave in countenance, glaring into the camera, as he knew that his captors were about to shoot him in the head unless he denied Christ, which he was not going to do. The secular Westerner will not say that the boy got what he deserved. Nor will the secular Westerner move one finger to prevent him from getting it.

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The new odium Christi is a hatred of the moral teachings of Jesus, hatred preached in the name of Jesus himself, sometimes by preachers in churches riddled with termites, and sometimes by licentious scoundrels who want what they want, and there's an end on it. A sinner with a bad conscience might glance up from his sty should he hear the Lord say, "If a man but look upon a woman with lust, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart."  So instead we give him Jesus the Anti-Christ, who resolutely never said a thing about sins of the flesh.

A sinner with a bad conscience might look up from his account book should he hear the Lord say, "Fool, your life will be required of you this very night." So instead we give him Jesus the Anti-Christ, who never said a thing about the pursuit of wealth and creature-comforts, but who does require you to salve matters by the legalism of voting for the correct party.

A sinner with a bad conscience might look up from his resumé, should he hear the Lord snub the Prince of this world, saying, "It is written: you shall worship the Lord your God, and him alone shall you serve." So instead we give him Jesus the Anti-Christ, who thanked Satan for the offer but said that he was really only interested in a one-hour worship service every week, for people who like that sort of thing. Otherwise the Prince could rule the rest according to the Prince's best lights.

The Words of Everlasting Life

In this time above all we must let Jesus speak in his own voice, which is like no other. We should have his words ever ready, with charity and without embarrassment. He preaches with authority, and not like the professors and the politicians. He does not promise the fevered hedonism of the popular entertainer. He promises a peace that the world cannot give. Everyone else speaks the words of despair and death. His are the words of everlasting life. Let them be on our lips, let them burn in our hearts and shine out in our lives. •

Anthony Esolen is Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Thales College and the author of over 30 books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House) and, with his wife Debra, publishes the web magazine Word and Song ( He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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