“We didn’t regard drunkenness and lechery, Sabbath-breaking and gambling as more than poor judgment or poor taste. What we were slow to forgive was hardness of heart and all unkindness.” W. A. Percy
After listening to a gospel singer’s rambling and incoherent “testimony,” I remarked to my wife, “Why is it that preachers want to sing, while singers want to preach?” In like fashion, some want to be poets whose talent resides in prose, e.g., William Alexander Percy. Though self-identifying as a poet, his four volumes of poetry are now deservedly forgotten, while his one prose work, “Lanterns on the Levee,” lives on. Though his social attitudes may be dated, his humane and generous spirit would grace any age.
Though out of favor with this judgmental generation, “Lanterns” (published in 1941 and still in print—and judging by the number of copies I’ve had borrowed and not returned—still popular) is too rich for this piddling commentary, but the chapter, “For the Young People,” makes the heart ache. Percy attacked the formal religion of his day as “the ghosts of dead phrases.” As Fant observed: “He knew…that a cultural religion is no religion at all but is a winking form of hypocrisy…detached from either the life of the mind or the reality of the work-a-day world.” When Percy asked a pastor about the concentration of obvious miscreants in the churches, he was told: “They have been born again…they are certain of salvation… (They) may do what they like…The ethics of Jesus do not interest them…” Percy concluded: “Not science, but the Christian sects are causing the death of religion.
An honest assessment of Western Civilization must address the role of the Reformation in undermining traditional Christianity. As Mencken noted: “The Latin Church, which I constantly find myself admiring, despite its frequent imbecilities, has always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism, but a poem.” The inexorable decline of Christendom (and the rise of its most heinous cruelties) began with the ascendancy of preaching in the churches. The Church fostered great music, poetry, and pageantry, but when a popular wing of it began to nourish the preposterous proposition that every jot and tittle of scripture has the same authority and inspiration as its soaring poetry and semi-educated parsons began full-throttled argument to that effect, encouraging the faithful to (Mencken, again) “listen to an ignoramus trying to prove he is a better theologian than the Pope,” the mystery and magic faded, to be replaced by hard-hearted bigotry.
For the first half of my life, I spent a lot of time listening to Protestant preaching. It was not altogether worthless. Despite the emotionalism, I absorbed a sense of morality that served me reasonably well. Unfortunately, it was often joined at the hip with self-righteousness and hard-heartedness. It’s difficult to generalize about so many hundreds of hours of preaching, but I have found that whenever the parson mops his brow and solemnly proclaims, “God has laid it on my heart…,” whatever follows is likely to be mind-numbingly ignorant, heart-numbingly cruel, or both. When that happens, it is time to seek a “still, small voice.” Ritual polished by poets, sanctified by time, and practiced with humility encourages worshipers in a way that semi-literate preaching cannot.