|Light and salt|
I wrote last month about how J. R. R. Tolkien’s hopes for a bright future—creative, academic, matrimonial—were dashed in 1914 by the unexpected descent of Europe into chaos and carnage. His biographer, John Garth, tells us that Tolkien confided to a Catholic professor friend his feeling that he had received a ‘profound blow’—‘the collapse of all my world’, as he later called it. The professor coolly replied that ‘this war was no aberration: on the contrary, for the human race it was merely “back to normal”.’*
The Catholic professor’s view seems to have been that greed, anger, aggression, conflict, violence, cruelty, and callousness are the norm of human society, while generosity, patience, restraint, peaceableness, kindness, and gentleness are the aberration. What a terrifying thought!
There is a photo from the Conservative Party conference going the rounds. The Prime Minister has her arm raised exultingly. Her hand covers the three prongs of the capital letter ‘E’ in the slogan behind her ‘A BETTER FUTURE’. I don’t know whether Christians should believe in omens, but this looks very like one. (I am not making a political point: perhaps you and I still have bright prospects to look forward to, and perhaps these will be to the credit of our rulers.) There is no doubt whatever that for many people in our world the immediate prospect is ‘A BITTER FUTURE’.
Journalists were shocked very recently when they boarded a migrant boat on the Mediterranean: they and the survivors were stepping over the bodies of people asphyxiated in the crush. Meanwhile Aleppo is set to be destroyed completely by Christmas, unless something changes. In northern Nigeria, famine threatens, because they haven’t planted for three seasons for fear of Boko Haram. In my own city a schoolgirl was abducted and raped at rush hour. The man presenting himself for election as the most powerful ruler in the world has been recorded talking filth about women. And we now hear that leaving the European Union is likely to be an economic disaster (again, not politically biased: it was on the front page of The Times). Is it surprising that many people do not trust or believe what any politicians say? Their actions repeatedly contradict their words. Also, I hate to add, the danger of a nuclear conflict between America and Russia is greater than at any time since the Cold War.
Blame and anger, abuse and scorn and party spirit are no use here. They are part of the world’s armoury of weapons, which have only served to get us into our present peril.
Alongside those grim words of the Catholic professor, I am reminded of our Lord’s statement that his followers are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. I have always tended to think of these attributes as a kind of pleasant add-on. ‘Here’s the earth, sort of neutral or a bit stale; there’s some salt, improving its quality a bit. Here’s the world, gloomy; there’s a gleam of light, brightening things up.’ But just suppose Jesus means that things are a whole lot starker than that. Suppose that this salt and this light are the only things that stand between the world and utter corruption, total darkness? Supposing only a faithful, honest, kindly, self-denying, prayerful people scattered over the face of the earth prevents everything going back to the Catholic professor’s ‘normal’? And what if the Lord’s people were so conformed to this world that they fell short in faithfulness, honesty, kindliness, self-denial, and prayerfulness?
What can we do as Christian writers? It behoves us, I think, to examine our existence and our writings. Now, I’m aware that some of us are already battling with suffering and discomfort in everyday life, and that this is reflected in our writings. But many of us are seemingly living an untroubled existence amid these developing catastrophes, and writing as if such comfort and cosiness were the only thing. I am not decrying comfort and cosiness; civilization is there to foster them. Going back to Tolkien: his own writings lovingly delineate, in the Shire, that kind of civilized cosiness and comfort. But it is shown to be an island precariously surviving, all unconscious of the tentacles of darkness reaching out to engulf it. And it would have been engulfed long before, had there not been a small band of faithful guardians prepared to forgo comfort and ease in order to maintain a ceaseless vigil over that island of peace.
By all means let our writing and our lives celebrate civilized cosiness. But let us also take up our guardianship. The weapons of guardians are not, of course, swords and shields, as in Middle-earth, or guns, or any other physical force. I don’t need to tell anyone that our sole resource is ceaseless praying along with a preparedness to deny ourselves the comforts of this life for the sake of others. I don’t know how we can engage our writing in this, but it should be embedded there somehow. It’s up to us.
*John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 2003, ii. 48.