Columnists > Voices

Rote righteousness

But what happens when even residual habits have faded away?

Issue: "Scorched-earth politics," Sept. 7, 2002

THE DAY HAS COME WHEN FRANCIS SCHAEFFER IS outdated in spots. He mourned the demise of man in his time, but from the vantage point of 2002 man back then looks still pretty good. Schaeffer wrote of 1960s behavior, "Men are simply carrying on from memory. They are living only by habit, not because they have a firm, rational Christian base for their actions" (Death in the City).

He's right, it's no good to be polite and decent for no reason. It's no good to refrain from mugging the person you meet on a dark road just because your father and grandfather didn't do it. But rote righteousness is starting to seem downright halcyon nowadays. Habit itself has sputtered out.

The value of "madmen" (like Schaeffer) in every generation is that they help us to see more clearly the next phase. This is a necessary service because a certain optical illusion attends the march of history. The slippage of man from relative states of grace toward absolute states of depravity is like the looming hill you see from a distance as you drive your car toward it, which when you get to it seems like the size of a speed bump. At a historical distance to debauchery-when the thing is still a whispered fringe phenomenon-it looks utterly sinful; the closer you sidle up to it, the more "understandable" it appears. Everybody was appalled at homosexuality when I was a kid; now it's no big deal.

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The satirist Terry Southern, co-writer of the screenplays Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, remarked that our culture is the first to have done away with crime. (Plug in "sin.") All is psychology now. Everybody's a Hegelian. Preaching about Sodom and Gomorrah today involves a kind of Catch 22: People in Sodom are the last to know they're in Sodom. The shock and repentance-value of the Genesis story diminish in proportion as the increase of evil makes repentance most urgent. The more we slouch toward Gomorrah, the less we realize it; it's no big deal. More than that, it's the enlightenment!

This is the problem with evil; it arrives with a beautiful rationale-"so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect" (Matthew 24:24). The frog in the pot acclimates by degree to the warming water till his hide is cooked. The magazines, which in the wake of our corporate scandals speak in a cavalier manner of a "culture of greed," are more right than they know. What were anomalous sins in yesteryear are culture now. It's like yeast, as Jesus said.

Jaded as I am by all this, like the proverbial poached amphibian, occasionally something will still rouse me. At the café I tune in to a radio interview on "swinging" and it's not about Glenn Miller or Artie Shaw at all. There is a flat, middle-class voice talking matter-of-factly about her and her husband's weekly spouse-swapping parties. Surely the interviewer will play the role of my alter ego and denounce this monster, I expect. But no, the woman is accorded all the respect and cordiality befitting a diplomat.

In the weeks following the first revelations of rampant pedophilia in the priesthood, two men from the faculty of Fordham, a Catholic university, are interviewed. I expect them to fall on their knees and plead to the radio audience for mercy, and to be scolded by the interviewer. Instead they do the scolding. With heads held high they decry our callous insensitivity toward the sexual needs of men of the cloth. A few callers on the phone-in segment of the show cannot find their tongues. Befuddled and disoriented, and not expecting to be lectured, they lack the vocabulary to go hand-to-hand with this.

An Internet child-porn ring is uncovered in August by the U.S. Customs Service. The perpetrators are the children's parents.

The Sexual Life of Catherine M., after taking Europe by storm, has been riding the New York Times bestseller list. It is a memoir by Paris art critic Catherine Millet, but not about her art life. It is a graphic and disturbingly clinical description of sex in lavatories, on car hoods, in stairwells, and in restaurants, with hundreds of anonymous men, singly or in groups. The reviewers are calling it "exquisite," "philosophical," and "imaginative."

One man's "imaginative" is another man's "inventors of evil" (Romans 1:30). Righteousness is gone. Even habit is gone. The mannishness of Man gives way to the instinct of a Beast. When the metamorphosis is complete, can the end be far away?

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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