Monthly Archives: August 2016

Dear Most Reverend Pirate

Hullo. Stanislas the Webmaster here. This is a message for Captain Roseborough:

You know what it is to assume. It’s to make an ass out of u and me. In this case, though, your assumptions regarding the authorship of a recent certain post here at The Cellar Door make only one person an ass: you. Since you are already a thundering ass, assuming further will simply push you past ass-saturation to a point of severe volatility. Don’t risk it.

Submit comments if you wish. None of them will be posted – you have been blacklisted. This is not an open discussion forum. That is, it is not open to vexatious and double-minded men such as yourself.

Go fish. And don’t come back.

 

– The Cellar Door

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Against Ad Pseudonym Attacks

It appears my fellow writer here at DoorCellarTheCellarDoor or however you wish to make reference in your Facebook posts (Personal fave so far was the comparison to Christian News. Keep’em coming, guys. 1000 points to the most creative slams), has stirred up a bit of a ruckus. Now, I’m not sure that I personally agree with all of his assertions or style (and have told him as much), but good golly did some people get their Hanes in a bunch. Among the responses which I watched with half-hearted interest, there was one complaint which came up several times with which I took personal umbrage: the charge that writing under a pseudonym was a) cowardly, b) weak,  or c) invalidated whatever was said in the piece.

These objections struck me as odd. It’s a well-known fact that a sizeable number of writers, poets, theologians, and philosophers throughout history have used some sort of pseudonym. Kierkegaard himself had at least 9 known pseudonyms. Mathias Flacius had over 15. Give me a few minutes and I’ll hop in my time machine to ask them why they were such cowards.

……………….

Ok. I’m back. I realized when I got there that I haven’t kept my Danish skills up to snuff, but I’m pretty sure Soren answered the accusation with the Copenhagen equivalent of “That’s the dumbest set of objections I’ve ever heard.”  Flacius was too busy trying to put sugar in Melanchthon’s gas tank to respond, but I’m sure he’d agree.

These men and the many other great publishers of essays and treatises like them did not write with false names because they were timid. They had a multitude of reasons from grouping their works by thematic aim, avoiding their own previously known reputations, and sometimes even personal safety. Hell, even Stephen King started using a nom de plume for a bit to see if people were buying his books because they were good or because they had the name King on the cover. Turns out that there’s a lot in a name. The book sold 10 times better when the secret was out.

You see, when it comes to opinions, thoughts, writings, musings, and other types of literary diarrhea which get posted on the internet, their inherent nature is usually ridiculously egotistical. The thoughts, arguments, points, and rhetoric get immediately weighed and measured before they are read and processed. The measure of a man and his ideas in this age of glowing screens and smartphones is no longer his capability of communicating, but rather the little blue name next to his attempted Facebook wit or Twitter blather. Not only that, but those who build their own little following in the world of the tubes begin to get careless with their method and statements and, like the American Church, begin to say and signal whatever will continue to grow their number of likes and retweets. It’s all pretty disgusting.

It’s then no surprise that the loudest complaints about the pseudonymous nature of DoorCellarThe came from those among the Lutheran milieu for whom the descriptor “self-aggrandizing” is an all too perfect fit.

Cowardly? Eh, maybe, but not likely. That’s not the reason for the editorial choice for fake names. Instead, we aspire to be a place where ideas, poetry, essays, and just plain suggestions can be floated out among the web-o-sphere without the weight or curse of nonymous reputations. The ideas have to stand for themselves because that’s the only thing any reader will know about what he’s reading. Maybe you’ll be able to read into the choices different people have made for their pseudonyms, maybe not. Maybe you’ll be convinced you know who wrote this or that. Maybe you’ll be right, but more than likely you’d be surprised. To tell the truth, I know that there are several accounts for this little e-think tank of whom I am unaware of the “real” identity. It’s more fun that way. We are Cellar for we are many….or at least several.

So maybe some of you will get offended by some of the things presented there. Feel free to respond, but be aware that since the nature of the Cellar is one centered on rhetoric and discussion, you may wish to check your emotional reactions and self-importance at the door.

Episode 2: Higher Things—TOYOTA

It appears I chose a rather ripe topic for my debut here at The Cellar Door. (“A Dinitarian Higher Things Conference?”) I certainly did not realize that by laying a hand on the sacred rump of the Higher Things cow—not even tipping it, simply laying a hand on it!—I would elicit such spirited ire from some of its principals and organizational boosters. Given that I am but a lowly author who hath not the power of the sceptre on this blog, I didn’t immediately get the memo. Anyway, I’ve got it now: I am to put the new cover sheets on all TPS reports, mmkay?

No, but apparently I’ve rustled some feathers with what I wrote. Stanislas forwarded me some notification emails heralding comments from Greg Eilers (who writes under the pseudonym “Gina”), Rev. William Cwirla (who, I am told, bakes a lot of bread), and Rev. Christopher Rosebrough (who apparently owns a pirate ship—well, shiver me timbers!). Mr. Eilers’ comment was long, made no sense, and wasn’t funny. Rev. Cwirla’s comment was short, made sense, and was funny. Rev. Rosebrough’s comment was a duplication of a post on his blog. It was something else. But there are so many people who like to ride on his pirate ship (if you know what I mean) that we’ve been getting a lot of click-throughs to my post from his. Since I’m not sorry for having written what I wrote (not even a little bit), and since I cannot take anything that pompous muckraking fraud says with even an iota of seriousness, I’ll refrain from offering a sardonic “thanks, matey”, but will nonetheless express my approval of the fact that his website is directing so much traffic our way.

First of all, I thought that everyone thought Merovech was actually Trent Demerest, the Pseudepigraphus blogger. Now I’m told that I’m Trent Demerest. All this time, I’ve been living a lie, thinking I was someone else. The logic seems to be that if you indicate mild agreement with the Enfant Terrible of Lutheran bloggers, and you use a pseudonym, you become him. Rumor has it there’s even a betting pool. “Argh, mateys! Odds be five-to-one it’s me sworn enemy, Demerest! Argh!” I’d like to cash in for some of Captain Rosebrough’s seed-money booty that he pillaged from Creflo Dollar’s yacht.

If you’re betting on this, you’re just plain stupid. Go play internet poker. If you are unable to think of any good reasons someone might have for writing under a pseudonym, then you probably have spent too much time on the internet, specifically comment sections. Sort of a given for most of us these days, so don’t take it too hard.

Second…goodness gracious, I am getting absolutely smoked for having written “dinitarian” rather than “binitarian.” Check this out; here’s Cwirla:

First of all, the term is “binitarian” not “dinitarian.” If you’re going to charge someone with something, at least name it correctly.

The effect is better if you crane your neck way back, sneer, squint, and sort of speak through your nose as you read it aloud.

Here’s Rosebrough:

That’s hardly what one would expect from an organization that is drifting into Dinitarian [sic] Antinomianism (the correct theological word is Binitarian).

…and then he writes “Dinitarian [sic]” like eight times! This guy, with the signaling.

Alright, you two exceedingly sagacious men. You caught me. I’m not a theologian (then again, neither is Rosebrough). I’m an engineer. Give me a little credit for using “Pneumatomachians”, will you? I’ll go to sleep tonight rubbing my temples and chanting “Bi, not Di.” I sure hope my subconscious doesn’t do weird things with that; dreams will tell.

More distressing than my confusion over Latin prefixes, though, is the fact that neither of these men seems to know how to read. For Blackbeard, there’s some excuse—there’s little time for phonics on the high seas. But there is no excuse for Breadloaf, who I’m sure has at least read bread recipes.

I certainly did not accuse Higher Things of being binitarian, dynamite, or Pneumatomachian. And I quote myself:

Needless to say, I’m not truly worried that the folks who run Higher Things are Pneumatomachians.

I simply observed that Higher Things has become very sloppy. I also brought up the inconvenient truth that an increasing number of people have soured on the organization, and I gave examples of some reasons why. As a springboard for these observations, I made an intentionally overwrought observation of the fact that no mention was made of the Holy Spirit in an advert that seemed to start out with a creedal structure and sequence. The implication was that the things we do without thinking often are the most revealing of our habits and priorities.

Doesn’t matter. There be leaden plates lining yon pirate captain’s tri-cornered dunce-cap! Yargh!

In a recent blog post written by pseudonymous author John Philoponus which was posted at The Cellar-Door, Higher Things, an organization for which I sit on the Board of Directors, was charged with the very serious theological crime of being antinomian. The evidence that was put forth to substantiate the author’s charge was an advertising blurb for an upcoming Higher Things retreat. Below is my response to this slanderous and sinful blog post. (emphasis and high-dudgeon in original)

Theological crime! Somebody call Torquemada, and—just to be safe—Van Helsing.

Such keening is one reason why a rapidly diminishing number of people take this guy seriously.

Then this:

I strongly admonish the author of this post to repent, seek out their [sic] pastor to confess this sin and be absolved for it and then bear fruit in keeping with repentance by immediately publishing a retraction.

Make sure that your pronouns match their antecedents in number, Cap’n.

You’ll not be getting a retraction. The fact that Higher Things allows you to sit on its board should be sufficient to destroy any sane man’s confidence in the organization. Put that in your four-pounder and fire it, “matey.”

Then there’s Padre Breadloaf Headphones:

cwirly

Yes, well, I can call you a flaming arrogant (you carry your fair share of ignorance, too) jackass knowing exactly who you are. But I won’t. However, I will take your suggestion and waste no time, energy, or words addressing asininity. As such I won’t be responding to any more of your “feedback”, such as has made its way to me. As Jack Preus used to say, “Never get into a pissing contest with a skunk.”


I didn’t think that my little thinkpiece was going to cause such a firestorm. But if I’ve got the ear of “the public” or, more likely, “a handful of fellow Lutherans”, I suppose I’ll capitalize on my Joe the Plumber moment.

The thrust of my concern with Higher Things has less to do with the details of what they’re putting out, and more to do with the fact that big “Youth Gatherings” are root-and-branch the product of erroneous thinking regarding the Church, the Ministry, and the Christian home. Rev. Phillip Hoppe’s article was the buried lede of my whole piece. If all I did in my post was get more people to read and seriously consider what he wrote, then I will consider my first foray into Lutheran blogging a mild success.

Compare two admittedly caricatured genres of event:

  1. “Hey, you folks in the area, and others who may want to make the trip, come to our church for a thing. It’s for the whole family.”
  2. “Hey, youth everywhere! We, a group of Lutheran superstars, are going to travel the country and put on big things! The things we’ll be putting on will be so big that we might not be able to use church buildings for the services…but, boy-oh-boy will your heart just bleed at how beautiful (topically popular hymn/something besides the Common Service) sounds when we all sing it together! You’ll be overcome with togetherness and a feeling of transportive Lutheran solidarity! Hip and cool pastors whom you don’t know and who don’t know you will teach breakout sessions that will make your own pastor seem bland and forgettable! Afterwards you can friend them all on Facebook, watch their videos, listen to their podcasts…basically just hang onto every thought that surfaces in their craniums throughout the day. Anyway, be sure to find the big thing we’re doing nearest to you. It’ll be the experience of a lifetime the year, and you can mope and languish in come-down for months afterwards…UNTIL THE NEXT BIG THING! Be sure to stay in touch with us 24/7/365 via the internet, and buy some swag!”

^ High energy. Just a lot of energy there. Yuge.

It should be readily apparent that I’m doing more than summarizing Rev. Hoppe, who may not agree with my riffs on the points he made and should not be blamed for them.

I don’t think that genre #2—which includes both the National Youth Gathering and Higher Things—is a wise idea, or that it ever has been a wise idea. I will freely acknowledge, and applaud, the fact that Higher Things also sponsors events which fit under genre #1. Still, I wonder what the point is of branding them as “Higher Things” events.

Having an alternative to the National Youth Gathering was once a very attractive idea for us confessional types. From the late nineties through most of the aughts, we were very down. We felt like we were “losing the Synod.” Gerald Kieschnick and his church-growth hatchet-men were sauntering oily-shod over everything we loved and held dear. There was more finger-snapping going on than at a dress-rehearsal of West Side Story. All sorts of things were Ablaze that never even should have been exposed to sunlight. We were surly and we kicked the cat, sometimes twice a day.

Enter Higher Things, the organization that gave us hope. The organization that raged against the dying of the light, against the unionistic, mainline-wannabe, gutless LCMS of yesterdecade. Finally! A youth conference where Scripture, the Catechism, the Liturgy—in short, “Good Christ-Crucified For-You Lutheranism”—were front and center. Load up the conversion van!

We said it was for the kids, and it was. We do love our kids and we wanted what was best for them. But, really, it was also for us. We were so anxious about “The State of the Synod”, so tired of “losing”, etc., that we forgot that the real wellsprings of Christian faith and piety are the local church and the home altar, not youth gatherings. Our kids became pawns in that weirdly vicarious “battle for the institutions” that we in the Gen-X/young-boomer cohort can never seem to get free from.

The LCMS, Gerald Kieschnick, Ablaze!—these things actually had very little to do with our children. They were, all of them, tails wagging the dog. Or another part of the dog, right below the base of the tail. But they were not actually “the problem”, and our thinking that they were was a grand exercise in blame-displacement.

Bull-corn to English: Higher Things does not exist because “the LCMS” failed to produce a genuinely confessional Lutheran “youth gathering”, “youth organization”, “culture of youth ministry”, what have you. Higher Things exists because of failures at the level of the local church and the Christian home—failures which are more than catechetical, but which are largely and obviously catechetical. 

Even if all of Higher Things’s “content” were grade-A genuinely and confessionally Lutheran (it may have been at one point, but it sure isn’t anymore), that wouldn’t change the fact that the organization should be working to eliminate the need for its own existence (as President Reagan said of welfare). Instead it has become self-conscious, self-perpetuating, and expansionary. Like welfare.

Whatever will your youth do during those long periods of doldrums in between Higher Things conferences? Get them “plugged in” via the Higher Things blog, Higher Things online devotionals, Higher Things Facebook, Higher Things Twitter, Higher Things podcasts, and Higher Things Higher Things. Content! So much content! (Word on the street is that Higher Things will soon be available as an IV-drip.)

As with welfare, the very men whose dereliction has necessitated the rise of the alien institution (read: fathers) realize that Higher Things will continue to “do our job for us” if we let it (or so we think). So we begin to coast. Sure, our children don’t look up to us as their spiritual heads, but, hey, that’s a small price to pay for convenience. The local church and pastor get bypassed, too. Instead, children look at screens where Higher Things gurus (and gurinas) tell them all that they need to know (and, as it turns out, plenty of stuff that they don’t need to know and that you’d rather that they didn’t).

Fellow dads, don’t kid yourself: paying the Verizon bill does not amount to exercising spiritual headship.

“The welfare culture tells the man he is not a necessary part of the family,” George Gilder writes in Wealth & Poverty; “he feels dispensable, his wife knows he is dispensable, his children sense it.” True enough. Yet the other, more insidious reality is that some men are fine with, and even grow to like, feeling dispensable. Delegating the faith-formation of one’s children to a “youth organization” frees up a lot of time for important things like Facebook, fantasy football, and pursuing the American dream your vocation.

All of this has a detrimental effect on pastors, too. The virtuality, ubiquity, immediacy, and illocality of the internet all exacerbate the desire—latent in the heart of every pastor—to make himself into a para-minister, a celebrity, and a leader of men (or youth), someone who can be consulted for theological answers and even spiritual direction from a distance by a host of people who aren’t actually under his spiritual care. But parishioners are not the same as fans, and fans are not the same as parishioners. Being Lutheran doesn’t make one immune to this, and being “confessional” or “liturgical” is no inoculation. While this touches more than just Higher Things, they are still the prime example of Lutherans doing the para-ministry thing and pretending its something else.

When you get right down to it, Higher Things is a function of the same errant thinking which undergirds the “church growth” movement. “The youth” are treated like a clientele whose special spiritual needs are better met by some branded organizations that is neither the local church nor the family. Mercantile ministry. Same game, different team.


When I look back over the years, I really do think that we confessional refugees should have read the signs better back when Higher Things got started. We should have thought a little more deeply about how—indeed, whether—organizations of its kind actually help the confessional/ genuine/ historic Lutheran “cause.” More to the point, we should have realized that Lutheranism is not a cause at all.

We Lutherans claim that Lutheranism is the purest idiom of the catholic faith, thus Christianity, thus a religion. (No, it is not “just” a confession.) When it comes to religion there actually is quite a bit more to the thing than dumping GOOD-CHRIST-CRUCIFIED-FOR-YOU-LUTHERANISM!!! into the youth (or anyone) raw from the top at giant traveling filling stations.

There’s a radio advert that’s played on Issues Etc. periodically. I know you’ve heard it. This super enthusiastic voice (got to be Rev. George Borghardt—a genuinely nice guy) comes on over an organ motet: “If you want Good Christ-Crucified-For-You Lutheran Youth…put Good Christ-Crucified-For-You-Lutheranism IN YOUR YOUTH!!!” I don’t remember the wording exactly, and I’m not going to skip through an Issues, Etc. episode to find it right now. I know it’s not significantly different than that. But what is it even supposed to mean? Does anyone even know? We’re not talking about limes and coconuts here; we’re talking about human beings. Does anyone think this is actually how religion works, or how the human person works?

I have a better idea. If you want Good Christ-Crucified-For-You Lutheran Youth, you should get married, have kids, get them baptized, teach them to pray, teach them the Catechism, teach them the liturgy and our great hymns, get them educated, and have them learn a trade or profession from a young age that accords with their gifts so that they can serve their neighbor rather than melt their brains staring at an iPhone for eighteen hours a day. In fact, take away their iPhones, or their Galaxy Nexi, or their HTCs. Your child needs a smartphone like he needs a hole in the head. I should know—I build them. Smartphones, that is, not holes in the head.

If you want to be more serious about your family’s Lutheran piety, but you really get no support from your local church; if your pastor really is not doing his job; if Sunday morning really is a depressing stew of pathetically un-Lutheran garbage, &c… then you really should consider moving—either to another church or, if there is no better option, to another area, i.e., pack up the U-Haul and leave Ur of the Chaldees. Maybe it’s outside the realm of possibility for you for various reasons. But maybe it’s not. A truly reverent Lutheran liturgy should not be something you regard as a special event to be patronized on special occasions, like a theme park or some other diverting novelty. Quite the opposite—it should be one of the determining factors in where you choose to locate your family. I, for one, wish I had realized this much sooner.


At no point have I argued that Higher Things has never done any good. That would be a ridiculous claim. Maybe you were awakened from indifference at a Higher Things conference. Maybe you even came to faith because of the Word that was preached at one. Thanks be to God! And thanks be to God that people have come to real saving faith during the time of the Great Awakening, or at a Billy Graham crusade, or after hearing a sermon in a Catholic church. That doesn’t negate the fact that the “Great Awakening” was propelled by pernicious sectarianism, that “decision theology” is formally heretical, and that the Roman Catholic Church officially anathematized the Gospel itself in 1563. That good effects have followed dubious enterprises is no argument on behalf of the dubious enterprises themselves. I know that you or your teenage son might get the opposite impression from reading any one of Rev. Riley’s many self-aggrandizing posts about his edgy past, but…no, it’s simply a reminder that God is merciful, and that He works all things together for good for His elect children. If He didn’t, I don’t know how any of us would ever be saved.

One final note…

Perhaps it will seem strange, but I have not written any of this in an effort to convince people who disagree with me. That’s not why I’m writing. I have a very limited purpose. I’m simply writing to let you know—no, not you, but you—that you are not crazy. A lot of us see what you see. You’re not the only one. Your doubts are well-founded. You are not a pietist, a wet blanket, overly scrupulous, weird, disconnected from reality, &c. If you are, in fact, behind the times, count yourself blessed, because the times are about to steamroll everyone currently skipping gaily ahead of them.

“Isaiah’s Job,” by Albert Jay Nock

Sculpture by Claus Sluter of Old Testament prophet Isaiah, at base of Well of Moses. (Photo by Carlo Bavagnoli//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Detail of sculpture by Claus Sluter of Old Testament prophet Isaiah, at base of Well of Moses. (Photo by Carlo Bavagnoli//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

I am not a libertarian— far from it. Still, I believe that the featured essay, “Isaiah’s Job,” by the renowned twentieth-century libertarian Albert Jay Nock, contains much wisdom, no matter what you think of his philosophy on the whole. While Nock uses the story of Isaiah to make a more analogical point about the unreflective, anti-philosophic temper of modern American society, his conceit serves equally well in a religious frame—after all, it’s Isaiah we’re talking about, so such a frame is hardly a Procrustean bed. Indeed, his essay is a fit and proper heuristic aid for reflecting upon the temper of the denizens of the New Israel, the Church of God, particularly that aspect under which we might contemplate her as a unique human society. Of course, the ecclesia militans is much more than a human society. But she is exactly that, too.

Nock’s words here remind me of something Josef Pieper writes in Leisure: The Basis of Culture (which book was stumped earlier at the Cellar Door here). Pieper writes:

[W]e need not only direct our attention to the extreme instances of crisis that show themselves today: I mean simply the everyday working world, where we must go about our business, where very concrete goals are advanced and realized: goals that must be sighted with an eye fixed on the things nearest and closest at hand. Now it is not our purpose here to condemn this world, from the standpoint of some “holiday-world” of philosophy. No words need be wasted on saying that this work-a-day world is very much with us, that in it the foundations of our physical existence are secured, without which nobody can philosophize at all.

Nevertheless, let us also recall, that among the voices which fill the workplace and the markets (“How do you get this or that item of daily existence?” “Where do you get that?” etc.) — in the midst of all these voices suddenly one calls out above the rest: “Why is there anything at all, and not nothing?” — asking that age-old question, which Heidegger called the basic question of all metaphysics.

Must we explicitly state how unfathomable this philosopher’s question is, in comparison with that everyday world of needs and purposefulness? If such a question as this were asked, without introduction or interpretation, in the company of those people of efficiency and success, wouldn’t the questioner be considered rather…mad?

Yes, rather. The questioner and those like him—men who, like Isaiah, demand that we give attention to questions of ultimate import at awkward and “inopportune” moments—are “idealists”, we say, and we mean it pejoratively. They’re not “practical”, etc. They do not “accept the world as it is.”

But just how is the world, really? What is the “world”, and what do we mean by “really”? (What is the meaning of “is”? It’s a good question—just wasn’t the right one for Bill Clinton to ask when he did.) Doesn’t the adverb “really” presume knowledge of the “real”? And is there no connection between the “ideal” and the “real”?

In our postmodern torpor, we have forgotten even how to entertain or contemplate—let alone answer—such questions. In our ignorance, we feel superior. We dismiss, mock, and murder the “idealists.”

Part of the reason for this is that we are genuinely stupid. We haven’t learnt. We have instead grown myopic staring at high-definition images which flicker on the scrollable haptic-display-walls of our caves. “The world” presents itself at our fingertips. Why would we want to leave?

So enamored of the means we possess in mounting superabundance—our techne and all the hills of beans which we can count with it—we have lost consciousness of ends. We do not know what anything is for.

Since we eschew studying the arts of reason and know nothing of philosophy, we think that “ideal” means “perfect” rather than “pertaining to ideas.” We then can only deride “idealism”, rather than distinguishing between good and bad ideas, and thus good and bad idealisms, wise and foolish idealists. We imagine that an “idealist” is someone who attempts fanciful and rote repristination of this or that Golden Age. However, this is a most profound misunderstanding. “[T]he return which the idealists propose is not a voyage backward through time but a return to center,” writes Weaver, “which must be conceived metaphysically or theologically.” Idealists…

…are seeking the one which endures and not the many which change and pass, and this search can be only described as looking for the truth. They are making the ancient affirmation that there is a center of things, and they point out that every feature of modern disintegration is a flight from this toward periphery. It is expressible, also, as a movement from unity to individualism. In proportion as man approaches the outer rim, he becomes lost in details, and the more he is preoccupied with details, the less he can understand them. A recovery of certain viewpoints associated with the past would be a recovery of understanding as such, and this, unless we admit ourselves to be helpless in the movement of a deterministic march, is possible at any time. In brief, one does not require a particular standpoint to comprehend the timeless.

This and this alone is the vital work of the “idealist.” Yet the idealist—Pieper’s “questioner”—must keep out a weather eye: “Let us remember all the while,” Weaver cautions, “that the very notion of eternal verities is repugnant to the modern temper.”

Repugnant, yes. Also embittering and enraging.

Isaiah was a deemed a madman and for his troubles was sawn in half. Socrates was found guilty of corrupting of the youth and was forced to take the hemlock. Our Lord Jesus Christ was decried as a raving wine-bibber and, ultimately, crucified as a blasphemer. The apostles, His lunatic proxies, followed in His train. So it has ever been, and so it will ever be this side of Dies Irae. Any who cry “Return!” “Repent!” “Restore!” and “Remember!” must be regarded by the mass of men as foolhardy “idealists.”


Isaiah’s Job

Albert Jay Nock

prophet-isaiah

I

One evening last autumn, I sat long hours with a European acquaintance while he expounded a political-economic doctrine which seemed sound as a nut and in which I could find no defect. At the end, he said with great earnestness: “I have a mission to the masses. I feel that I am called to get the ear of the people. I shall devote the rest of my life to spreading my doctrine far and wide among the population. What do you think?”

An embarrassing question in any case, and doubly so under the circumstances, because my acquaintance is a very learned man, one of the three or four really first-class minds that Europe produced in his generation; and naturally I, as one of the unlearned, was inclined to regard his lightest word with reverence amounting to awe. Still, I reflected, even the greatest mind can not possibly know everything, and I was pretty sure he had not had my opportunities for observing the masses of mankind, and that therefore I probably knew them better than he did. So I mustered courage to say that he had no such mission and would do well to get the idea out of his head at once; he would find that the masses would not care two pins for his doctrine, and still less for himself, since in such circumstances the popular favourite is generally some Barabbas. I even went so far as to say (he is a Jew) that his idea seemed to show that he was not very well up on his own native literature. He smiled at my jest, and asked what I meant by it; and I referred him to the story of the prophet Isaiah.

It occurred to me then that this story is much worth recalling just now when so many wise men and soothsayers appear to be burdened with a message to the masses. Dr. Townsend has a message, Father Coughlin has one, Mr. Upton Sinclair, Mr. Lippmann, Mr. Chase and the planned economy brethren, Mr. Tugwell and the New Dealers, Mr. Smith and Liberty Leaguers – the list is endless. I can not remember a time when so many energumens were so variously proclaiming the Word to the multitude and telling them what they must do to be saved. This being so, it occurred to me, as I say, that the story of Isaiah might have something in it to steady and compose the human spirit until this tyranny of windiness is overpast. I shall paraphrase the story in our common speech, since it has to be pieced out from various sources; and inasmuch as respectable scholars have thought fit to put out a whole new version of the Bible in the American vernacular, I shall take shelter behind them, if need be, against the charge of dealing irreverently with the Sacred Scriptures.

The prophet’s career began at the end of King Uzziah’s reign, say about 740 B.C. This reign was uncommonly long, almost half a century, and apparently prosperous. It was one of those prosperous reigns, however – like the reign of Marcus Aurelius at Rome, or the administration of Eubulus at Athens, or of Mr. Coolidge at Washington – where at the end the prosperity suddenly peters out and things go by the board with a resounding crash.

In the year of Uzziah’s death, the Lord commissioned the prophet to go out and warn the people of the wrath to come. “Tell them what a worthless lot they are.” He said, “Tell them what is wrong, and why and what is going to happen unless they have a change of heart and straighten up. Don’t mince matters. Make it clear that they are positively down to their last chance. Give it to them good and strong and keep on giving it to them. I suppose perhaps I ought to tell you,” He added, “that it won’t do any good. The official class and their intelligentsia will turn up their noses at you and the masses will not even listen. They will all keep on in their own ways until they carry everything down to destruction, and you will probably be lucky if you get out with your life.”

Isaiah had been very willing to take on the job – in fact, he had asked for it – but the prospect put a new face on the situation. It raised the obvious question: Why, if all that were so – if the enterprise were to be a failure from the start – was there any sense in starting it? “Ah,” the Lord said, “you do not get the point. There is a Remnant there that you know nothing about. They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it.”

II

Apparently, then, if the Lord’s word is good for anything – I do not offer any opinion about that, – the only element in Judean society that was particularly worth bothering about was the Remnant. Isaiah seems finally to have got it through his head that this was the case; that nothing was to be expected from the masses, but that if anything substantial were ever to be done in Judea, the Remnant would have to do it. This is a very striking and suggestive idea; but before going on to explore it, we need to be quite clear about our terms. What do we mean by the masses, and what by the Remnant?

As the word masses is commonly used, it suggests agglomerations of poor and underprivileged people, labouring people, proletarians, and it means nothing like that; it means simply the majority. The mass-man is one who has neither the force of intellect to apprehend the principles issuing in what we know as the humane life, nor the force of character to adhere to those principles steadily and strictly as laws of conduct; and because such people make up the great and overwhelming majority of mankind, they are called collectively the masses. The line of differentiation between the masses and the Remnant is set invariably by quality, not by circumstance. The Remnant are those who by force of intellect are able to apprehend these principles, and by force of character are able, at least measurably, to cleave to them. The masses are those who are unable to do either.

The picture which Isaiah presents of the Judean masses is most unfavorable. In his view, the mass-man – be he high or be he lowly, rich or poor, prince or pauper – gets off very badly. He appears as not only weak-minded and weak-willed, but as by consequence knavish, arrogant, grasping, dissipated, unprincipled, unscrupulous. The mass-woman also gets off badly, as sharing all the mass-man’s untoward qualities, and contributing a few of her own in the way of vanity and laziness, extravagance and foible. The list of luxury-products that she patronized is interesting; it calls to mind the women’s page of a Sunday newspaper in 1928, or the display set forth in one of our professedly “smart” periodicals. In another place, Isaiah even recalls the affectations that we used to know by the name “flapper gait” and the “debutante slouch.” It may be fair to discount Isaiah’s vivacity a little for prophetic fervour; after all, since his real job was not to convert the masses but to brace and reassure the Remnant, he probably felt that he might lay it on indiscriminately and as thick as he liked – in fact, that he was expected to do so. But even so, the Judean mass-man must have been a most objectionable individual, and the mass-woman utterly odious.

If the modern spirit, whatever that may be, is disinclined towards taking the Lord’s word at its face value (as I hear is the case), we may observe that Isaiah’s testimony to the character of the masses has strong collateral support from respectable Gentile authority. Plato lived into the administration of Eubulus, when Athens was at the peak of its jazz-and-paper era, and he speaks of the Athenian masses with all Isaiah’s fervency, even comparing them to a herd of ravenous wild beasts. Curiously, too, he applies Isaiah’s own word remnant to the worthier portion of Athenian society; “there is but a very small remnant,” he says, of those who possess a saving force of intellect and force of character – too small, preciously as to Judea, to be of any avail against the ignorant and vicious preponderance of the masses.

But Isaiah was a preacher and Plato a philosopher; and we tend to regard preachers and philosophers rather as passive observers of the drama of life than as active participants. Hence in a matter of this kind their judgment might be suspected of being a little uncompromising, a little acrid, or as the French say, saugrenu. We may therefore bring forward another witness who was preeminently a man of affairs, and whose judgment can not lie under this suspicion. Marcus Aurelius was ruler of the greatest of empires, and in that capacity he not only had the Roman mass-man under observation, but he had him on his hands twenty-four hours a day for eighteen years. What he did not know about him was not worth knowing and what he thought of him is abundantly attested on almost every page of the little book of jottings which he scribbled offhand from day to day, and which he meant for no eye but his own ever to see.

This view of the masses is the one that we find prevailing at large among the ancient authorities whose writings have come down to us. In the eighteenth century, however, certain European philosophers spread the notion that the mass-man, in his natural state, is not at all the kind of person that earlier authorities made him out to be, but on the contrary, that he is a worthy object of interest. His untowardness is the effect of environment, an effect for which “society” is somehow responsible. If only his environment permitted him to live according to his lights, he would undoubtedly show himself to be quite a fellow; and the best way to secure a more favourable environment for him would be to let him arrange it for himself. The French Revolution acted powerfully as a springboard for this idea, projecting its influence in all directions throughout Europe.

On this side of the ocean a whole new continent stood ready for a large-scale experiment with this theory. It afforded every conceivable resource whereby the masses might develop a civilization made in their own likeness and after their own image. There was no force of tradition to disturb them in their preponderance, or to check them in a thoroughgoing disparagement of the Remnant. Immense natural wealth, unquestioned predominance, virtual isolation, freedom from external interference and the fear of it, and, finally, a century and a half of time – such are the advantages which the mass-man has had in bringing forth a civilization which should set the earlier preachers and philosophers at naught in their belief that nothing substantial can be expected from the masses, but only from the Remnant.

His success is unimpressive. On the evidence so far presented one must say, I think, that the mass-man’s conception of what life has to offer, and his choice of what to ask from life, seem now to be pretty well what they were in the times of Isaiah and Plato; and so too seem the catastrophic social conflicts and convulsions in which his views of life and his demands on life involve him. I do not wish to dwell on this, however, but merely to observe that the monstrously inflated importance of the masses has apparently put all thought of a possible mission to the Remnant out of the modern prophet’s head. This is obviously quite as it should be, provided that the earlier preachers and philosophers were actually wrong, and that all final hope of the human race is actually centred in the masses. If, on the other hand, it should turn out that the Lord and Isaiah and Plato and Marcus Aurelius were right in their estimate of the relative social value of the masses and the Remnant, the case is somewhat different. Moreover, since with everything in their favour the masses have so far given such an extremely discouraging account of themselves, it would seem that the question at issue between these two bodies of opinion might most profitably be reopened.

III

But without following up this suggestion, I wish only, as I said, to remark the fact that as things now stand Isaiah’s job seems rather to go begging. Everyone with a message nowadays is, like my venerable European friend, eager to take it to the masses. His first, last and only thought is of mass-acceptance and mass-approval. His great care is to put his doctrine in such shape as will capture the masses’ attention and interest. This attitude towards the masses is so exclusive, so devout, that one is reminded of the troglodytic monster described by Plato, and the assiduous crowd at the entrance to its cave, trying obsequiously to placate it and win its favour, trying to interpret its inarticulate noises, trying to find out what it wants, and eagerly offering it all sorts of things that they think might strike its fancy.

The main trouble with all this is its reaction upon the mission itself. It necessitates an opportunist sophistication of one’s doctrine, which profoundly alters its character and reduces it to a mere placebo. If, say, you are a preacher, you wish to attract as large a congregation as you can, which means an appeal to the masses; and this, in turn, means adapting the terms of your message to the order of intellect and character that the masses exhibit. If you are an educator, say with a college on your hands, you wish to get as many students as possible, and you whittle down your requirements accordingly. If a writer, you aim at getting many readers; if a publisher, many purchasers; if a philosopher, many disciples; if a reformer, many converts; if a musician, many auditors; and so on. But as we see on all sides, in the realization of these several desires, the prophetic message is so heavily adulterated with trivialities, in every instance, that its effect on the masses is merely to harden them in their sins. Meanwhile, the Remnant, aware of this adulteration and of the desires that prompt it, turn their backs on the prophet and will have nothing to do with him or his message.

Isaiah, on the other hand, worked under no such disabilities. He preached to the masses only in the sense that he preached publicly. Anyone who liked might listen; anyone who liked might pass by. He knew that the Remnant would listen; and knowing also that nothing was to be expected of the masses under any circumstances, he made no specific appeal to them, did not accommodate his message to their measure in any way, and did not care two straws whether they heeded it or not. As a modern publisher might put it, he was not worrying about circulation or about advertising. Hence, with all such obsessions quite out of the way, he was in a position to do his level best, without fear or favour, and answerable only to his august Boss.

If a prophet were not too particular about making money out of his mission or getting a dubious sort of notoriety out of it, the foregoing considerations would lead one to say that serving the Remnant looks like a good job. An assignment that you can really put your back into, and do your best without thinking about results, is a real job; whereas serving the masses is at best only half a job, considering the inexorable conditions that the masses impose upon their servants. They ask you to give them what they want, they insist upon it, and will take nothing else; and following their whims, their irrational changes of fancy, their hot and cold fits, is a tedious business, to say nothing of the fact that what they want at any time makes very little call on one’s resources of prophesy. The Remnant, on the other hand, want only the best you have, whatever that may be. Give them that, and they are satisfied; you have nothing more to worry about. The prophet of the American masses must aim consciously at the lowest common denominator of intellect, taste and character among 120,000,000 people; and this is a distressing task. The prophet of the Remnant, on the contrary, is in the enviable position of Papa Haydn in the household of Prince Esterhazy. All Haydn had to do was keep forking out the very best music he knew how to produce, knowing it would be understood and appreciated by those for whom he produced it, and caring not a button what anyone else thought of it; and that makes a good job.

In a sense, nevertheless, as I have said, it is not a rewarding job. If you can tough the fancy of the masses, and have the sagacity to keep always one jump ahead of their vagaries and vacillations, you can get good returns in money from serving the masses, and good returns also in a mouth-to-ear type of notoriety:

Digito monstrari et dicier, Hic est!

We all know innumerable politicians, journalists, dramatists, novelists and the like, who have done extremely well by themselves in these ways. Taking care of the Remnant, on the contrary, holds little promise of any such rewards. A prophet of the Remnant will not grow purse-proud on the financial returns from his work, nor is it likely that he will get any great renown out of it. Isaiah’s case was exceptional to this second rule, and there are others, but not many.

It may be thought, then, that while taking care of the Remnant is no doubt a good job, it is not an especially interesting job because it is as a rule so poorly paid. I have my doubts about this. There are other compensations to be got out of a job besides money and notoriety, and some of them seem substantial enough to be attractive. Many jobs which do not pay well are yet profoundly interesting, as, for instance, the job of research student in the sciences is said to be; and the job of looking after the Remnant seems to me, as I have surveyed it for many years from my seat in the grandstand, to be as interesting as any that can be found in the world.

IV

What chiefly makes it so, I think, is that in any given society the Remnant are always so largely an unknown quantity. You do not know, and will never know, more than two things about them. You can be sure of those – dead sure, as our phrase is – but you will never be able to make even a respectable guess at anything else. You do not know, and will never know, who the Remnant are, nor what they are doing or will do. Two things you do know, and no more: First, that they exist; second, that they will find you. Except for these two certainties, working for the Remnant means working in impenetrable darkness; and this, I should say, is just the condition calculated most effectively to pique the interest of any prophet who is properly gifted with the imagination, insight and intellectual curiosity necessary to a successful pursuit of his trade.

The fascination and the despair of the historian, as he looks back upon Isaiah’s Jewry, upon Plato’s Athens, or upon Rome of the Antonines, is the hope of discovering and laying bare the “substratum of right-thinking and well-doing” which he knows must have existed somewhere in those societies because no kind of collective life can possibly go on without it. He finds tantalizing intimations of it here and there in many places, as in the Greek Anthology, in the scrapbook of Aulus Gellius, in the poems of Ausonius, and in the brief and touching tribute, Bene merenti, bestowed upon the unknown occupants of Roman tombs. But these are vague and fragmentary; they lead him nowhere in his search for some kind of measure on this substratum, but merely testify to what he already knew a priori – that the substratum did somewhere exist. Where it was, how substantial it was, what its power of self-assertion and resistance was – of all this they tell him nothing.

Similarly, when the historian of two thousand years hence, or two hundred years, looks over the available testimony to the quality of our civilization and tries to get any kind of clear, competent evidence concerning the substratum of right-thinking and well-doing which he knows must have been here, he will have a devil of a time finding it. When he has assembled all he can and has made even a minimum allowance for speciousness, vagueness, and confusion of motive, he will sadly acknowledge that his net result is simply nothing. A Remnant were here, building a substratum like coral insects; so much he knows, but he will find nothing to put him on the track of who and where and how many they were and what their work was like.

Concerning all this, too, the prophet of the present knows precisely as much and as little as the historian of the future; and that, I repeat, is what makes his job seem to me so profoundly interesting. One of the most suggestive episodes recounted in the Bible is that of a prophet’s attempt – the only attempt of the kind on the record, I believe – to count up the Remnant. Elijah had fled from persecution into the desert, where the Lord presently overhauled him and asked what he was doing so far away from his job. He said that he was running away, not because he was a coward, but because all the Remnant had been killed off except himself. He had got away only by the skin of his teeth, and, he being now all the Remnant there was, if he were killed the True Faith would go flat. The Lord replied that he need not worry about that, for even without him the True Faith could probably manage to squeeze along somehow if it had to; “and as for your figures on the Remnant,” He said, “I don’t mind telling you that there are seven thousand of them back there in Israel whom it seems you have not heard of, but you may take My word for it that there they are.”

At that time, probably the population of Israel could not run to much more than a million or so; and a Remnant of seven thousand out of a million is a highly encouraging percentage for any prophet. With seven thousand of the boys on his side, there was no great reason for Elijah to feel lonesome; and incidentally, that would be something for the modern prophet of the Remnant to think of when he has a touch of the blues. But the main point is that if Elijah the Prophet could not make a closer guess on the number of the Remnant than he made when he missed it by seven thousand, anyone else who tackled the problem would only waste his time.

The other certainty which the prophet of the Remnant may always have is that the Remnant will find him. He may rely on that with absolute assurance. They will find him without his doing anything about it; in fact, if he tries to do anything about it, he is pretty sure to put them off. He does not need to advertise for them nor resort to any schemes of publicity to get their attention. If he is a preacher or a public speaker, for example, he may be quite indifferent to going on show at receptions, getting his picture printed in the newspapers, or furnishing autobiographical material for publication on the side of “human interest.” If a writer, he need not make a point of attending any pink teas, autographing books at wholesale, nor entering into any specious freemasonry with reviewers. All this and much more of the same order lies in the regular and necessary routine laid down for the prophet of the masses; it is, and must be, part of the great general technique of getting the mass-man’s ear – or as our vigorous and excellent publicist, Mr. H. L. Mencken, puts it, the technique of boob-bumping. The prophet of the Remnant is not bound to this technique. He may be quite sure that the Remnant will make their own way to him without any adventitious aids; and not only so, but if they find him employing any such aids, as I said, it is ten to one that they will smell a rat in them and will sheer off.

The certainty that the Remnant will find him, however, leaves the prophet as much in the dark as ever, as helpless as ever in the matter of putting any estimate of any kind upon the Remnant; for, as appears in the case of Elijah, he remains ignorant of who they are that have found him or where they are or how many. They did not write in and tell him about it, after the manner of those who admire the vedettes of Hollywood, nor yet do they seek him out and attach themselves to his person. They are not that kind. They take his message much as drivers take the directions on a roadside signboard – that is, with very little thought about the signboard, beyond being gratefully glad that it happened to be there, but with every thought about the directions.

This impersonal attitude of the Remnant wonderfully enhances the interest of the imaginative prophet’s job. Once in a while, just about often enough to keep his intellectual curiosity in good working order, he will quite accidentally come upon some distinct reflection of his own message in an unsuspected quarter. This enables him to entertain himself in his leisure moments with agreeable speculations about the course his message may have taken in reaching that particular quarter, and about what came of it after it got there. Most interesting of all are those instances, if one could only run them down (but one may always speculate about them), where the recipient himself no longer knows where nor when nor from whom he got the message – or even where, as sometimes happens, he has forgotten that he got it anywhere and imagines that it is all a self-sprung idea of his own.

Such instances as these are probably not infrequent, for, without presuming to enroll ourselves among the Remnant, we can all no doubt remember having found ourselves suddenly under the influence of an idea, the source of which we cannot possibly identify. “It came to us afterward,” as we say; that is, we are aware of it only after it has shot up full-grown in our minds, leaving us quite ignorant of how and when and by what agency it was planted there and left to germinate. It seems highly probable that the prophet’s message often takes some such course with the Remnant.

If, for example, you are a writer or a speaker or a preacher, you put forth an idea which lodges in the Unbewußtsein of a casual member of the Remnant and sticks fast there. For some time it is inert; then it begins to fret and fester until presently it invades the man’s conscious mind and, as one might say, corrupts it. Meanwhile, he has quite forgotten how he came by the idea in the first instance, and even perhaps thinks he has invented it; and in those circumstances, the most interesting thing of all is that you never know what the pressure of that idea will make him do.

For these reasons it appears to me that Isaiah’s job is not only good but also extremely interesting; and especially so at the present time when nobody is doing it. If I were young and had the notion of embarking in the prophetical line, I would certainly take up this branch of the business; and therefore I have no hesitation about recommending it as a career for anyone in that position. It offers an open field, with no competition; our civilization so completely neglects and disallows the Remnant that anyone going in with an eye single to their service might pretty well count on getting all the trade there is.

Even assuming that there is some social salvage to be screened out of the masses, even assuming that the testimony of history to their social value is a little too sweeping, that it depresses hopelessness a little too far, one must yet perceive, I think, that the masses have prophets enough and to spare. Even admitting that in the teeth of history that hope of the human race may not be quite exclusively centred in the Remnant, one must perceive that they have social value enough to entitle them to some measure of prophetic encouragement and consolation, and that our civilization allows them none whatever. Every prophetic voice is addressed to the masses, and to them alone; the voice of the pulpit, the voice of education, the voice of politics, of literature, drama, journalism – all these are directed towards the masses exclusively, and they marshal the masses in the way that they are going.

One might suggest, therefore, that aspiring prophetical talent may well turn to another field. Sat patriae Priamoque datum – whatever obligation of the kind may be due the masses is already monstrously overpaid. So long as the masses are taking up the tabernacle of Moloch and Chiun, their images, and following the star of their god Buncombe, they will have no lack of prophets to point the way that leadeth to the More Abundant Life; and hence a few of those who feel the prophetic afflatus might do better to apply themselves to serving the Remnant. It is a good job, an interesting job, much more interesting than serving the masses; and moreover it is the only job in our whole civilization, as far as I know, that offers a virgin field.

This essay first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1936.