Monsignor Knox’s Unrighteous Bible

Monsignor Ronald Knox

Monsignor Ronald Knox

Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957)—convert from Anglicanism, Catholic chaplain at Oxford, etc.—spent a good portion of the 1930s and ‘40s producing a new English translation of the Bible—or, more specifically, producing a new English translation of the Vulgate, while checking the Vulgate’s Latin against the original Hebrew and Greek. Though Knox’s Bible enjoyed widespread use during only the 20-odd years between World War II and Vatican II, his work is stylistically excellent. Knox aimed to translate Scripture into fluent English, adjusting his style to suit the genre of each Biblical book, and paraphrasing Latin, Hebrew, and Greek idioms that jarred his fine-tuned Anglophone Sprachgefühl. Even where Knox’s own word-choices jar the reader—even where one disagrees with them—they are interesting. Knox’s translation recently replaced the Douay-Rheims as the New Advent website’s English Bible, and has been reprinted as a hefty hardback by Baronius Press. It is a great read.

I said Knox’s word-choices are interesting; the process by which he made those choices is both interesting and instructive. The Baronius edition of the Knox Bible ships with a booklet called On Englishing the Bible, a reprint of eight papers, articles, and texts of talks that Knox collected in 1949, and in which he explained the rationale behind his translations.

Whether despite, or because of, the fact that I am no scholar of Biblical languages, Knox’s comments on the word “righteousness” especially impressed me. The Bible, he says, is usually translated by a committee, and the committee members observe certain conventions to keep their work mutually consistent. Knox reasons that the compilers of the King James Version “evidently did something of that kind with a word like dikaiosune in the New Testament, or tsedeq in the Old”:

What they did was to resuscitate a more or less obsolete word, “right-wiseness,” recondition it as “righteousness,” and use that all through the Bible as the equivalent of the tsedeq-dikaiosune idea. It served well enough; but this wooden rendering, constantly recurring in all sorts of different contexts, has resulted all through the Authorized Version in a certain flatness, a certain want of grip. [1]

There is, Knox says, no possibility of exact word-for-word equivalence between any two languages; a word in one language inevitably has context-dependent shades of meaning that will not overlap perfectly with the shades of meaning of its nearest equivalent(s) in another language. “Tsedeq or dikaiosune can mean, when used of a man, innocence, or honesty, or uprightness, or charitableness, or dutifulness, or (very commonly) the fact of being in God’s good books,” he says (and the obsolescence of that last idiom—“being in [someone’s] good books”—a mere 65 years after he wrote it only strengthens his argument, highlighting what a subtle and slippery thing a language is). “Used of God, it [i.e., tsedeq or dikaiosune] can mean the justice which punishes the sinner, or, quite as often, the faithfulness which protects the good; it can mean, also, the approval with which God looks upon those who are in his good books.” Therefore,

Only a meaningless token-word, like righteousness, can pretend to cover all these meanings. To use such a token-word is to abrogate your duty as a translator. Your duty as a translator is to think up the right expression, though it may have to be a paraphrase, which will give the reader the exact shade of meaning here and here and here. [2]

So, (almost) as completely as certain filmmakers have ruined certain songs for me, Monsignor Knox has ruined that “meaningless token-word,” righteousness.


Incidentally, the word “righteousness” occurs 291 times in the King James Version, and 137 times in the New American Bible (Revised Edition).

And it occurs 263 times in the Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition), my favorite translation, which I find more readable than Knox.

[1] Ronald Knox, “Thoughts on Bible Translation,” in On Englishing the Bible (London: Baronius Press Ltd., 2012), 6.

[2] Ibid., 7.

My 10 Favorite Books I’ve Never Read

Among book lovers, a never-ending source of simultaneous delight and despair is the awareness of how many books we haven’t yet read. Delight because there is always some wonderful new work to discover. Despair because no matter how much we read, there always seems to be glaring, inexcusable gaps in our reading lists–those books we are downright embarrassed to admit we haven’t yet read.

While these observations are fairly obvious, one thought did surprise me recently when I was considering the long line of books on my “to read” list. I realized that some of the books I haven’t read yet are actually some of my favorite books. Perhaps this sounds bizarre, but I think I’m not alone in this experience. There are some books I just haven’t gotten around to reading yet, but that not only do I know I will love, but I already love. Some of these titles merely fill me with a great sense of anticipation, but I would go so far as to say that some others have deeply influenced my thought and my outlook on life. That was my experience, for example, when I finally read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for the first time. Before reading the opening line, I already knew this was a book that was, in some sense, already in me–like a city I had seen in pictures, through whose streets I was finally walking in the flesh.

In the hope that other people can relate to this experience, here are my top 10 favorite books I’ve never read. To be fair, I should note that some of these are books I haven’t read in their entirety. That may seem like cheating, but I include them because they are books that demand to be read whole, and the knowledge that I haven’t done so frankly gnaws at me. Also, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a list of the best or more famous books I haven’t read, just a list of my personal favorites.

The Complete Poems, John Keats51ko68wFLyL

“Ode to a Nightingale,” “Endymion,” “Bright Star,”–heck, just the last two lines of “Ode to a Grecian Urn” are enough to make Keats one of my favorite poets ever. And yet, to my great chagrin, that’s about all I’ve read from him! Some other book always seems more pressing, and I’m left dreaming about the day when I’ll get to finally sit down with Keats and take in all his glorious verse.

Brothers KThe Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

In graduate school, I signed up for a semester-long class on Dostoyevsky’s most important novel, but the space was full and I ended up in a seminar about War and Peace (which is just as well, as otherwise I’d probably be writing about that book here instead). The Brothers K explores big questions about God, morality, and free will. I love how the book forces us to come face to face with evil and whether “without God, everything is permitted.” Or rather I would, if I had ever read it.


violentThe Violent Bear it Away, Flannery O’Connor

Being that Flannery O’Connor’s writing was one of my main inspirations behind Dappled Things, it is really appalling that I haven’t read her second (and last) novel. By all accounts the book is a brilliant example of O’Connor’s probings into the collision of belief and secularism, shaped by her Catholic faith and Gothic sensibilities, combining at once, as the publisher’s description put it, “irony and compassion, humor and pathos.” I can’t wait to read this one (but for some reason, I keep waiting anyway).

Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percycosmos

This unclassifiable book by Percy, with a title that pokes a bit of fun at Carl Sagan (or Neil Degrasse Tyson, as the case may be), bills itself as “the last self-help book.” By all accounts, it is a delightfully mordant parody of the self-help book craze of the 1980s that offers no easy answers for “achieving success” or “boosting your self-esteem,” but rather faces you with a series of questions that according to an Amazon reviewer, “will alter the way you watch the evening news . . . , cut your grass, shop for groceries, and generally manage to survive another Tuesday afternoon.” I absolutely love this book, though I haven’t read a page of it.

The Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas AquinasSumma

Philosophically, I would not hesitate to classify myself as an Aristotelian/Thomist, which is why it shames me to realize how little of the Summa I’ve actually read. While I’ve tackled Aristotle’s PoeticsNicomachean Ethics, Politics, Physics, Metaphysics, On the Soul, and even a more obscure work like his Parts of Animals, all I’ve read of the Summa (other than the odd question here and there) is the Treatise on Law and the Treatise on God. I justify this to myself with the dubious argument that as a properly catechized Catholic, I can anticipate what St. Thomas would have said on certain topics when reflecting on Aristotle, but reading just a bit of his actual writing is enough to convince anyone that in many cases this is wishful thinking. St. Thomas is often credited with “baptizing” Aristotle, but as writers like Etienne Gilson have made clear, he really did much more, clarifying, developing, and even correcting Aristotelian thought. The Summa is, without a doubt, one of the books that has most influenced how I think and how I live, and yet I’ve probably read less than 10% of it. So why haven’t I read it? Simply, it’s just so big. I keep putting it off to that glorious day when I’ll finally have time for it. In the meantime, I just seem to get busier and busier.

After Virtue, Alasdair McIntyreafter-virtue

Speaking of Aristotelian/Thomists, Alasdair McIntyre is without a doubt one of the world’s most eminent living philosophers, and After Virtue is his magnum opus, one of the most important books of the twentieth century. In it, McIntyre offers a devastating critique of contemporary moral philosophy, tracing how and why our thinking devolved into a cacophony of competing and incommensurable moral assertions, and offering a tentative way out of the mess. I’ve read enough of the book–about a third–for it to deeply influence my thought about ethics and cure me once and for all of the temptation to think along utilitarian lines. Unfortunately, once I assured myself this was an amazing book, other matters distracted me from it and so far I’ve left it unfinished.

power gloryThe Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

This is one of the foremost classics of modern Catholic literature, a much celebrated work by one of the best writers of the last century. It introduced the iconic figure of the “whiskey priest,” exploring how grace can work in the midst of terrible conditions and flawed persons. It’s a must read. All the same, I haven’t read it.


wind willowsThe Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

The publisher’s description bills this classic by Grahame as an “unforgettable ode to friendship and one of the most cherished children’s stories of all time.” I love children’s literature, and this book is no doubt one of my favorites. Too bad I haven’t read it. (I’m hoping to finally get a chance to do so when I read it out loud to my children in a year or two.)

miraclesMiracles, C.S. Lewis

During college, when I binge-read almost everything by Lewis, I was turned off from reading Miracles after hearing how Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe had trounced C.S. Lewis in a debate centered around the book’s argument that naturalism/materialism is self-refuting. The encounter apparently was deeply shocking to Lewis himself, and reportedly sent him into something of a crisis of faith. While I did hear that Anscombe herself had helped him revise the problematic chapter in order to strengthen his argument, it still sounded to me like the an attempt to make a limp horse win a race, so decided to pass on it. Since then, however, I’ve learned of Alvin Plantinga’s philosophically robust evolutionary argument against naturalism, which was apparently inspired by Lewis’s contentions in Miracles, and that has made me want to go back to read the book. I’d also love to tackle Plantinga’s Knowledge of God and Warrant and Proper Function, where the argument is developed in various forms.

The Bibleignatius bible

Obviously, as a Catholic the Bible has shaped me in more ways than I can know. I read it daily (or almost), whether at Mass, praying the Divine Office, or simply doing spiritual reading. I’ve also read my share of biblical commentary and criticism, and know a tolerable amount about the Bible’s history (at least enough to torment some Jehova’s Witnesses the last time they came knocking). But I’ve never read the Bible in its entirety, and I know there are books in it about which I know next to nothing. I tremble a bit when I remember St. Jerome’s saying that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Better get reading soon.

* * *

So there you go, my top 10. Some of them I plan to read soon, some I expect it may be years before I finally tackle them. Either way, they remain among my favorite books, ridiculous as that may seem. Are any of your favorites also books that you haven’t read? If so, leave us a comment below.

Taking the Word Into Our Flesh

2014-10-15 09.48.06A few months ago, I happened across this article, which discusses how great writers of the past learned their craft by hand-copying lengthy passages from other great writers. The idea coincided with some other reading I’ve done lately about how very physical our mental processes really are, and I decided the method was a definite must-try. But whose work should I copy? Whose words did I love enough to, in a sense, inscribe them on my brain?

I spent some time with the question, returning to it off and on for weeks, but as I thought back to all the wonderful books I have read that shaped not only my writing style but my world view, suddenly all I could see was their flaws. On and on, I considered and dismissed, until finally it hit me. There was only one Author I loved enough to imitate.

So I got out my Bible.

It took a quarter of a second or so to realize what I was proposing was no writing exercise; it was prayer. Half a second after that, I realized the idea could not possibly be new. In fact, it is so not-new, it’s even mentioned in the article. I was just too dense to pick up on it the first time through.

For a few months now, I have sat down almost every night with my Bible, my journal, and my pen, but the words in my journal are never my own. I think about what to pray for, and then I spend a few minutes flipping pages (not usually at random, but sometimes) until I find words that seem to “fit.” Sometimes I choose scriptures that speak directly to my intention, but not always. Sometimes I choose a passage I do not understand; sometimes I choose one that is well-beloved. It’s often no more than two or three verses, though occasionally I choose an entire canticle or parable. Whatever it is, I simply copy it several times until… until. There is no formula, no quota, no limit. It’s similar to lectio divina, only with a pen, and I find that the pen helps me keep my focus. I cannot lose my place when the words are there, in black and white, to mark it.

As the weeks progressed, I began to notice some strange things about this practice. The first is that I stuck with it. The discipline of private prayer has eluded me for most of my life because mine is not the kind of mind that takes kindly to things like repetition and silence. I need sound. I need light, which means I need to keep my eyes open. I need activity, and copying scripture provides all of these. It is a joy that makes me echo the words of St. Therèse:

…I take up Holy Scripture. Then all seems luminous to me; a single word uncovers for my soul infinite horizons; perfection seems simple; I see that it is enough to recognize one’s nothingness and to abandon oneself, like a child, into God’s arms.

Of course, it is a sign of my own spiritual immaturity that I should find the joy of prayer to be strange. However, I noticed something far stranger, a trend in the scripture passages I chose to copy–or rather, the ones I chose not to copy–that helped me understand what God is truly doing in my life, and it was this: I do not typically write the Psalms. This puzzled me to no end because the Psalms are the prayer book of the Church, the javelins of our holy arsenal, and when I began, I assumed this was the book where I would spend most of my time. Yet, night after night, I would sit down, open my Bible to see “The Lord is my shepherd” or “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord”… and I would turn the page. When I finally realized why, I knew I had to share the insight, for it is not mine to keep. It is the inheritance of all Christian people.

The reason I do not tend to write the Psalms is that many of them have already become not just part of my consciousness, but part of my body. I have been a cantor at Mass for fifteen years, and in that time, my relationship with the Psalms has become both intellectual and spiritual, but it is also physical. I have shaped them with breath and lips and tongue, felt their vibrations as they resonate through my bones, even choked upon them into a microphone. The Psalms have already become part of me. I do not mean they have nothing left to teach me (what hubris would that be!), only that a connection exists which I do not have with other books. I do not always live the message of the Psalms I have sung any more than I always live the glory of the Eucharist I have tasted, drunk, and chewed. But if we truly believe that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us–if we believe that, in the Eucharist, we become what we receive–then we also believe that our flesh is called to become the Word. Through my pen, God is shaping His words with my body, and my body with His Word, just as He has done through my voice for so long.

“In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”[i] There is no one right way to encounter the scriptures, and I certainly do not mean to present my own way as a standard. But however we encounter God’s Word, we must do it with our whole selves. Let us read it with our eyes and ponder it with our intellect, but do not let it end there. Let us listen to it when it is proclaimed, and then proclaim it. Let us sing it; let us taste and chew it. Let us smell it, whether in bread and wine or ink and paper. Let us touch the pages upon which it is inscribed, and then inscribe our own. God grant that we may never relegate the scriptures to the mind as if they were they were made of ordinary words, but rather take them into our flesh to dwell: “When I found your words, I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart.”[ii]


[i] Ephesians 6:16-17

[ii] Jeremiah 6:16

Fatima: Altar of the World

XQ1A2164Today, we left Fatima after having spent two and a half days there filming for our next production, The Faithful Traveler in Portugal. We arrived on Wednesday evening after three days in Lisbon, and it rained pretty much every day since. Today, after finally getting some sun and filming at Aljustrel and Valinhos, we left to film at the Monastery at Batalha, with two nights in Tomar.

Fatima has always held a special place in my heart. As a child, I loved hearing the stories of the little pastorinhos, the three shepherd children—Lucia dos Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto—to whom the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared in 1917, here at Fatima.

XQ1A2157This is my first time ever in this amazing place, and to be quite honest, I still have to pinch myself to believe I’ve been there.

Fatima calls itself the “Altar of the World”, and I really believe that it is true. Here, Masses, Confessions, prayers and petitions go on for hours, seemingly nonstop. This often happens despite the hot sun or some rainy and windy weather, like we’ve encountered. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. For me, when I’m standing in the middle of the Cova da Iria in October, it had better be raining so I can feel a teeny bit of what the people experienced on October 13, 1917, when the sun danced in the sky on that miraculous day of Our Lady’s last appearance at the Cova.

Saturday night, I attended the candlelight procession, which is preceded by the praying of the Rosary in what seemed to be about 10 different languages. Afterward, I stayed for Mass, which started at around 10:00 pm and lasted until around 12:30 midnight. I had missed Mass earlier that day because I was filming, and I didn’t want to not go to Mass on a Sunday in Fatima! So I braved the cold and ignored my exhaustion. “When will I ever be in Fatima again?” I thought. “When will I ever get the chance to attend Mass at Fatima at night?”


It rained most of the evening, and I had brought my camera with me to film some of the procession, so my rain slicker went on top of the camera to protect it from the rain. Earlier that day, the zipper on my jacket stopped working and I had to break it to get the jacket off, so I couldn’t zip up my jacket. Suffice it to say, I was very cold and very wet and very tired. I was fine staying until the end of a very long Mass. It occurred to me toward the end—no one seemed the least bit perturbed about how long Mass was lasting. The priests didn’t seem to be rushing; they just took their time, praying the prayers, singing the songs, giving God what He deserves. And the attendees were just taking it all in. Many were even kneeling on the hard, very wet, ground. People were sharing umbrellas and being really loving to one another. All of this, in the middle of the night, outside, in the rain, in the cold.


I’ll be honest, it both impressed me and depressed me. I want Mass to be celebrated with such reverence everywhere, instead of it being rushed—gotta get home for football!—and dismissed as an imposition on our busy schedules. I want people at home to feel God’s presence at Mass so much so that they can’t keep from crying when the bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.


I am so very blessed to be here, where such an important message went out to the world, and from whence it continues to go out like rays of light from the candles of all of the processions that have ever taken place here.




AND pray some more. Don’t ever stop praying. Ever.

Is the world looking scary? Pray.

Are you worried about the Synod? Pray.

Worried about Ebola? Pray.

Christians in the Middle East? Pray.

Lost your keys? PRAY.

Pray for everything and anything. Pray at all times. Carry a rosary. Talk to your Guardian Angel. Talk to God. Talk to His Blessed Mother.

Don’t stop praying.

What else is so important?

(This might sound a tad preachy. Let me just say that I often write my blogs to remind myself of all the things I know to be true–trust in God, be patient, pray at all times. I forget these things, too, as I get caught up in the world, and I need reminding all the time. So please don’t think I’m preaching at you. I just figure you might need reminding, too.)


Fatima is such an amazing place of peace and love, I am spectacularly jealous of the people who live here, or who live nearby. I’ll admit it! It’s a holy jealousy. I met some awesome pilgrims—Julie and her parents Dominique and Tony—who came from Belgium, which is about 2 hours away by plane. They’ve been here three times this year alone! How amazing is that?!


Then I remember—I have holy places near me, too. The Miraculous Medal Shrine is all of 10 minutes from my house, thanks be to God, and Philadelphia has four other amazing shrines. What shrines and holy places are near you?

And let’s not forget that Jesus is in our local church every minute of every day, waiting for us to come by and say hi.


I would like to use this post, however, to encourage you all to consider coming to Fatima sometime soon. In 2017, they will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the apparitions at Fatima, back in 1917! How awesome is that?! And I’m sure everyone here is gearing up for the festivities. Start planning your own trip!

We’ve been staying at the Hotel Cruz Alta, one of the hotels in the Fatima Hotels group, which is about as close to the Cova as… well, it’s across a little street. We can hear the singing from the Masses all day and we can walk 5 minutes or less to the Basilicas. The buffets are awesome, the people are SO NICE, and the beds are cozy. What more could a pilgrim want?!


I’d also like to ask that you spread the word and tell people to pray to Blessed Jacinta and Francisco for miracles! They’re ONE AWAY from being canonized! Wouldn’t a canonization and a Papal visit in 2017 just be icing on the cake of everything here? Wow, that would be awesome.


There is so much to say about Fatima, I could talk about it forever, and I’m sure I will be. Just ask me. Or watch The Faithful Traveler in Portugal, when it comes out—hopefully—next Spring. I’ll be asking Blessed Jacinta and Francisco and Sister Lucia for their prayers for that, too. And Our Blessed Mother, of course.


The George W. Hunt Prize

At the Washington Post today, emerging Catholic writers take note: the George W. Hunt Prize announced today will be offering $25,000 to “the finest literary work of Roman Catholic intelligence and imagination.” The prize is co-sponsored by America magazine and the Saint Thomas More Chapel at Yale University. To be eligible, writers must be working in the English language and be under 45 years of age. There’s no word on the Post article about when submissions will be accepted or how to submit, so watch for an update with details.

How to View Art

Over at the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott has some advice on how to visit an art museum. Or so it seems. It’s good advice, to be sure, both practical and insightful: take time, seek silence, study up, engage memory, accept contradiction.  But one quickly realizes that the art museum here is not just an art museum. It’s also a metaphor for life. These are rules on how to live. That’s the thing about museums: they make us realize that we are in the presence of something great, but also far beyond our understanding, and that our time is limited. How we spend that time makes all the difference.

Attention DC-area readers!

Fans of Dappled Things in the Washington, DC area may like to check out this art exhibition — “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea” — at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. It features pieces from the Vatican Museum and Uffizi Gallery, among other collections. From the NMWA website:

Divided into six thematic sections, the exhibition presents images of Mary as a daughter, cousin, and wife; the mother of an infant; a bereaved parent; the protagonist in a rich life story developed through the centuries; a link between heaven and earth; and an active participant in the lives of those who revere her.

Mark your calendars: the exhibit will open Dec. 5, 2014, and run through April 12, 2015. Whether you’re in the area or out, check out the “online exhibition exploring global traditions in Marian imagery, further contextualizing the artworks on view in the galleries” that will be offered on the museum’s website.

Monday Night Links

Deal Hudson talks with Dappled Things Editor in Chief Meredith McCann for Ave Maria radio in this insightful interview for his show Church and Culture.

The great books are for everyone! The Economist thinks that business leaders should ditch the traditional outdoors leadership courses and replace them with philosophy. Instead of “grappling with nature, business leaders [should] grapple with big ideas.”

David Anthony Harman, Dappled Things‘ art advisor, is also the man behind Native Maps, a company that makes hand-printed, research-driven neighborhood maps. They’ve now been named as finalists for the West Elm LOCAL Grant and are trolling for votes. If you want to support a DT team member and artist, do check them out and consider voting for them here (voting closes October 14).

Ever wondered what it’s like to “gird your loins for battle”? Wonder no more.


David Anthony Harman, hand-printing “native maps.”

Nominations Buzz!


Being far too humble to mention it herself, one of our very own associate editors here at Dappled Things was recently shortlisted for the HarperCollins Canada/UBC Best New Fiction Prize – congratulations, Natalie Morrill!


UBC (or, the University of British Columbia) is one of Canada’s best universities (often ranked in the 30’s in terms of the world’s top) and has a highly prestigious MFA program from which Natalie graduated recentlyish. Anyways, HarperCollins apparently has a habit of culling the top thesis projects from their graduating students and throwing them in a pot from which they draw a handful (three this year) that are in the running for insta-publication and New-Fiction glory. Or something like that.

Anyways, Natalie’s manuscript, entitled At the Top of the Wall, Alight, made the cut – and they’ll be making the decision about the winner at the end of the month. You can find the press release for the shortlist here.

Disclaimer: they totally misquoted the press release. It should say “AT THE TOP OF THE WALL, ALIGHT, by Sudbury author Natalie Morrill, is a sweeping epic of the Second World War, following the life of a Viennese Jew, his family and the close friend who aided them despite his position in the Nazi party.”

Instead it reads: “At the Top of the Wall, Alight by Sudbury author Natalie Morrill follows the life of a Viennese Jew, who is a member of the Nazi party during the Second World War.”

Note to aspiring writers: rein in your press releases. Otherwise your main characters may surprisingly find themselves a Nazi.

Congrats, Natalie, and good luck!


Degrees of Cool Part II (or, post-Christian)

Quick recap: we were just talking (in Part I) about some recent works of art that deal with the complexities of faith in ways that were honest AND commercially/critically successful, which begs the question: what the heck? There can be a bit of an expectation among Christian artists to not be taken seriously because of untrendy beliefs in things like, you know, absolute truth and all that. I know I’ve met quite a few writers who expect major backlash to the themes in their work – a backlash that, though sometimes exaggerated, still sometimes seems very, very real.

Then, on a generous tangent, the topic turned to nature and how pop culture opinions about it changed over the past three hundred years: until industrialization, nature was widely seen as a force to wage war against rather than the soft, gentle, rejuvenating force of spiritual revival that the Romantics later painted it to be. What was the change? People, because of mass urbanization, stopped needing to fight nature to survive – and so could start appreciating it for what it had to offer their newly urban selves.

Same thing with cultural relationships: Native populations in North America were painted as savages until they were conquered – only afterwards could they be perceived by the White-European-descended culture as misunderstood recipients of undeserved tragedy.*

And looking back at war propaganda will provide lots of other examples of demonizing the folks who are seen as the threats de jour.


Remember this guy?

An equally ridiculous example is the campy Catholic monarch who plays foil to England’s queen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. In everything from the maliciously chanting monks to his reluctance to step fully from the shadows, King Philip is presented as little more than a goblin against which Cate Blanchett will say something awesome while basking in a meticulously engineered morning glow. I’m not even joking – you can pretty much all but hear him croaking “gollum, gollum” in the background. Not that Catholics are immune to this kind of simplifying criticism.

Because we're not.

Because we’re not.

When cultures and worldviews are in conflict it’s pretty easy for “debate” to amount to a round of “let’s see who can yell the loudest [with funny memes!],” and for a while in the mid-twentieth century there was some pretty hefty anti-Christian sentiment in the pop-culture and intellectual spheres. I don’t want to say there were no influential voices of faith (there were definitely the Waughs and O’Connors among plenty of others), but the fabric of cultural modernism was kinda set against Christianity in a couple of ways, for a few different reasons.

The modernists, to simplify, were finding the older Victorian and Georgian ways of life too stuffy, petty and ultimately restrictive for the full expression of the breadth and soul of human dignity, and so were searching for another way to live. Enter institutional experimentation (in lifestyle, literature, sexuality, whatevs). One of the problems of the time was that Christianity was sometimes overwhelmingly tied up in the public consciousness (of the English-speaking world, anyways) with notions of cleanliness and respectability rather than the earthy, dirty work of redemption; this “respectable” Christianity wasn’t much more than a hollow shell, a culture dressing up its manners and pretensions in a spiritual tuxedo in order to gain a bit of extra legitimacy. The moderns saw clearly enough to call out the bluff. But not far enough to realize Christianity was the baby thrown out with the bathwater.

A personal suspicion of mine is that each major cultural movement, nearing the end of its shelf-life, eventually ends up mass-producing parodies of their trademark rebellion – leading everyone else to quickly get annoyed with them and paving way for the Next Big Thing. Chesterton constantly complained about the inconsistent groups of would-be anarchists who didn’t seem to have either the conviction or courage of the bolder revolutionaries and anti-monarchists of the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

While real anarchism was always felt a genuine threat, Chesterton found the guys still hanging around in his day, threatening dynamite and all, to be impostors of the original, dangerous challenge to civilization (or something). But then-popular ideas of revolution were watered-down, mass-marketed and picked up by folks genuinely looking for something to fight for, and so were maybe more interested in the fight than in the cause behind it. Cue Chestertonian eye-rolling. But the ideological lovechildren of the pre-and-inter-war moderns would have to wait until the marches of the sixties to fully bloom in this sense.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m under the impression that there were a lot of core groups in the hippie/flower-child movements who were genuinely convicted about peace, love and sexual expression as a means of achieving freedom and dignity and such. But I’m also pretty sure there were lots of folks who jumped on the wagon cause it felt good, provided an easy feeling of cultural righteousness and got them on TV. Cue the quick decline of hippies from force-to-be-reckoned-with to day-time sitcom parodies.

“Whoa….you know…man?”

Cue postmodernism. After the moderns were done fighting/tearing down the old systems so the new, truer morality (not that they’d use the word) could take root, their children quickly realized no new order was forthcoming. Older systems of making sense of the world seemed outdated, refuted and irrelevant, making the search for meaning itself become suspect. Enter Pynchon, Delilo and Vonnegut with their constant (and often painfully humanizing) struggles against the seeming meaninglessness of the world at large. Or, less intensely, enter punk with its global-scale sense of scepticism (ie, flipping the bird) towards any kind of meaning in hand-me-down worldviews. Or, thirty to forty years after the heyday of literary postmodernism in the 70’s/80’s, enter the mass-produced bearers of uncritical irony, detachment and cultural skepticism: hipsterdom.**


Postmoderns, meet your destiny.

So here we are at the tail end of a number of massive, twentieth-century cultural movements trying to break free from a stuffy, Victorian set of manners perceived to be “Christian” in nature. While the conflict was going on, Christians were seen as the epitome of uncool. But now, as modernism is declawed by postmodernism, which is in turn deflated by irony-for-irony’s-sake (not to mention our persistent habit of finding meaning in situations anyway), we might be far enough removed from the image of the “evil authoritarian Churchman(/marm)” that people may kinda-sorta be able to start appreciating the nuances/subtleties of the struggle of faith. It’s not as threatening, and therefore palatable.*****

One one hand, we can interpret this as confirmation that we are pretty much living in a Post-Christian world where the influence of Christendom is a distant memory of the past. We can lament the lack of Christian influence in public affairs, government, the arts and popular media. We can groan about having to compete for attention along with all the other paradigms in the intellectual marketplace.

Or we can acknowledge that there’s a great moment of opportunity here – less and less people are growing up with the knee-jerk anti-Christian tendencies common to Christian cultures (the most powerful anti-Catholic ballads in the Anglosphere, for example, come from Ireland), and so people across the board (Christian and otherwise) are able to look at each other from the cultural divide not as entrenched soldiers, but as mutual inhabitants of a strange world who, maybe, have something to teach each other.

Maybe Christian artists have the duty now of creating art not so much for use in a cultural battlefield as a way of being true to the Good, True and Beautiful as personally experienced in Christ. At the moment, the degree of being cool might well depend on the depth of our self-expression as artists of such. And that means being true to the doubt, loneliness and frustrations of faith as well as to the high-points – as “The Antenna,” “Noah” and “Modern Vampires of the City” (uuuggh) seem to imply, people may be more willing to listen if you speak just as much about the shit as the sunshine.


*Interestingly enough, though, in almost every single popular movie about Aboriginal populations (or their obvious stand-ins), they are almost always saved by a white man.

**When I decided on this title I totally promised myself that the essay would have nothing to do with hipsters***

***That was a total lie****

****After finishing, I found out someone already beat me to the punch and came to the same conclusions in a fantastic 2009 article called “The Death of the Hipster

*****There are two ways this can go, though – non-threatening doesn’t just have to be interpreted as “humbled,” but “compromised” too. There is no justification for substituting the visceral experience of faith for something watered down, just for the sake of being “non-threatening.” That was the problem with Victorian pseudo-religion – which was, in the first place, part of the reason why the moderns rebelled****** at all. Who really wants to set off the whole cycle again?

******And, really, wouldn’t you? It’s good to remember that things started with a whole heck of a lotta good intentions that, if not honoured, will come back to bite us all in the collective ass.


Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.