Columnists > Judgment Calls

Seduction of the ordinary

The spiritual risks of going "back to normal"

Issue: "Politics Post 9/11," Nov. 17, 2001

In the best of times, there is nothing more disposable than last Monday's editorial page. In these worst of times, feelings, both personal and national, are more than ever a mutating organism with a trajectory all their own, one on which you and I are, more than we like to admit, passive riders just borne along. (In idler days, politicians would have gone to great lengths, using something called opinion polls, to monitor these emotive indices for personal gain, forever trying to anticipate their next transmogrifications.)

I see it in the café. Mid-September's solemnity has given way, by and large, to the more accustomed ripples of conversation you hear over veggie wraps and coffee. On Sept. 11 and 12 everyone was "reeling and staggering like drunken men" (Psalm 107:27) and wondering what was real. They didn't put it that way, but you could see the gears turning, and folks trying to touch down with a toe on terra firma, something true to hang their hats on. Armageddon had intruded into football season, stem cell lines, The Simpsons, and other comfortingly familiar realities, and you could sense people frantically scrambling for some philosophical reconfigurations, surgical nips and tucks in their worldviews.

By the following Tuesday things had considerably "settled down." This is all to the good, and necessary too. The original blind-sided grief, even if it were desirable, is not sustainable. But is there a dangerous side to this, I wonder? Is it always progress, assimilation, deepening, healing? Or must we watch for dulling, hardening, retreat, and self-delusion? National church attendance, having spiked in the weeks just after 9/11, has subsided to normal levels. What murky reality is papered over by the description of life as trying to go "back to normal" (or even the new "normal" that factors in slight anthrax anxiety)?

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Time magazine's Lance Morrow, for one, fears the phenomenon. The commentator weighed in with Old Testament prophetic vehemence against the tendency, exhorting, "Let's have rage!" and warning us not to let our hatred for the terrorists leak away, "wandering off into Prozac-induced forgetfulness." (At least that was his take on Sept. 12. I wonder how he's feeling today.)

My own fear is not of abating rage but of the seduction of what C.S.Lewis calls in The Screwtape Letters "the ordinary." Here is the Evil One's stealth weapon, preferred even to the flashier "deadly sins." Elegant in its simplicity, it turns men away from the discombobulating horror of smoldering Twin Towers by focusing them on the comforting "stream of immediate sense experience," which they then choose to call "real life" (not examining what "real" means). This seduction speaks thus: "There now, Andrée. Things aren't so bad as all that, after all. Why, there goes old Mr. Gliba, taking his morning walk down Edgeley Road as he has always done." It's almost impossible to believe in terrorist boogiemen when you keep the "ordinary" before your eyes.

Once this is grasped, whole swaths of Scripture are rescued from unintelligibility. Pharaoh is no longer a bafflingly obtuse regent who needed 10 plagues to "soften." He is a mirror to our own capacity to be sobered into great fear of the Lord one moment, and then lapse back into illusory well-being as soon as the heat's off. No wonder the Psalmist encapsulates Israel's entire history of transgression as "forgetfulness" (Psalm 78).

I had always sided with the argument of the rich man in the Lazarus story of Luke 16, but now I see that Abraham was right: The man's brothers really "would not listen even if someone rose from the dead"-and for the simple psychological reason that after the initial shock and conviction (give it about a week or two), he would have woken up one fine day to irenic blue skies and said to himself: "Did I really see that miserable specter the other night, or was it just a dream?"

Let wise men beware of the seduction of the ordinary, the reassuring lulls between the plagues, the sirens that put us off the scent of reality, the muddled thinking. A return to routine based on trust in the Lord is a good thing. A return to routine based on "feeling" is the stuporous thinking of the five virgins (Matthew 25) and the inebriate servants (Matthew 24). Armageddon comes not suddenly but in seven staggered trumpet calls. Happy the nation not caught sleeping at the switch. Happy the man found dressed and ready for service and with his lamp burning when his master comes in the third watch of the night.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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