Monday, January 02, 2006

The New Puritans

H.L. Mencken both misunderstood and loathed Puritanism, which he defined as the dread suspicion that someone, somewhere was having a little fun. The new puritans, every bit as frowningly serious as the old, have changed their targets and methods, but scratch one with a pitchfork and you will see shining beneath the skin the same iron resolve. The new puritans have long since given up religion as a serious pursuit and are, however much they may protest the imputation, what Jacques Martian once called “practical atheists,” many of them clutching ACLU suits in their fists and railing about separation of church and state.

Of course it is always misleading to engage in stereotyping, but a partial list of new puritans might include Christians alienated from their church who have chucked Augustine and Aquinas for some exotic quasi-religious practice; devout readers of Dan Brown, an author who circulates in his fiction several ancient exploded heresies of the early Christian church; or Ann Rice, the Queen of Vampirism and author of several best selling books, the most popular of which is “Conversations with the Vampire.”

But hang on there a minute… In the new year, it will not be possible to include Rice in the upper echelons of the new puritans. The author has bidden goodbye to all that. "I will never write those kind of books again -- never," Rice has said, referring to her Vampire Chronicles series. Her previous books, revolving around witches and dark angels, Rice said, "were reflections of a world that didn't include redemption.” Rice has vowed,” I will never again write anything against the Lord.” Having been overcome by what she calls the beauty of faith, Rice has returned to her New Orleans Catholic roots and, however popular, may soon be expected to disappear down the media memory hole.

No matter, Rice has not returned from Hell with empty hands. Her latest book is called “Out of Egypt: Christ the Lord,” the sort of title likely to get an author uninvited to chic cocktail parties hosted by the Hollywood elite. Some of Rice’s previous books have been made into films. Her current book, the first in a planned trilogy, is a fictional account of the life of Jesus as a seven year old boy told from his perspective. It has passed through the hands of several bishops and is thought to be theologically correct.

But that is not what may make “Out of Egypt” the most dangerous read of the New Year. Theological precision has become synonymous in the popular imagination – fashioned in great part by Hollywood’s practical atheists -- with something dry, boring and hopelessly out of fashion. G.K. Chesterton, a convert to Catholicism, used to say that orthodoxy was both beautiful and revolutionary because it was orthodox and therefore intentionally set its face against the modern tendency to make idols of impermanent fads and fashions.

No, what will make “Out of Egypt” dangerous is its artistry. Rice is well known for what Oscar Wilde used to call “imaginative sympathy,” a talent that allows artists to insert themselves into a foreign time period and faithfully reproduce the mind of the era. Rice changed her usual gothic style into a spare, lean, Hemmingway-like style to reflect the plain poetic language used during Jesus’ time. “Out of Egypt” is a beautiful book. And it was the beauty of faith, Rice says, that occasioned her return to her Catholic roots.

Rice is living proof of Chesterton’s maxim that those who do not believe in God do not therefore believe in nothing; they believe in everything – including vampirism, Satanism and Brown’s hilarious notion that the Holy Grail, thought to be the vessel from which Jesus drank during the Last Supper with his apostles, really was a metaphor for the sacred linage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In Brown’s account, Jesus married Mary Magdalene and fathered a child named Sarah. After Jesus’ death, his wife moved to present day France. And if you believe all these ancient discredited fictions, Dan has a conspiracy theory, a lady’s book club romance novel, and a pseudo-scholarly book he wants to sell you -- soon to be a major motion picture.

If anyone supposes Hollywood honchos are hunkered down planning a release of Rice’s proposed trilogy, they know little of modern world and the role played in it practical atheists.
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