Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

Dr. Steve Turley, one of my favorite academics, on the role of truth, goodness, and beauty in education:

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Goodnight Nobody

Goodnight Nobody

“Goodnight nobody”

So says Margaret Wise Brown’s narrator in the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon, a book that was read to me countless times as a child and is a favorite in the current rotation my wife and I are reading to our children. In the midst of the goodnights rendered to kittens, mittens, combs, brushes, and mush throughout the book, this particular sentence is quite startling.

I can’t help thinking of the phrase “Goodnight nobody” as one of the saddest utterances that many today unconsciously whisper as they lie down to sleep. Our American culture, so flooded by the New Atheism, is at war with the thought that there may be a God who built this ship and is sovereignly at the helm. They believe, as C.S. Lewis once did, that there is no God and they are mad at Him for not existing. As a result of this militant atheism, we have seen a noticeable rise in loneliness, meaninglessness, isolation, self-centeredness, and bitterness. Truth is no longer a concrete cornerstone but rather a confetti-gun explosion — everyone gets his own tiny piece of colorful “truth” upon which to build his house. And we all know what happens when the big, bad wolf blows on those houses.

To borrow an analogy from Douglas Wilson, the atheist’s creed is in accordance with John Lennon’s “Imagine”:

“Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today”

There is no Heavenly Father for us to say goodnight to. Above us only sky. No eternal, sovereign justice awaiting anyone down here. Above us only sky. Above Dachau? Only sky. Above Ground Zero? Only sky. Above Syria? Only sky. We have certainly imagined, as Lennon desired, all the people living for today, and what we have gotten is a frenzied attempt to freeze time, to stay young forever, to be wealthy forever, to invest more in our online selves than our material selves. Our homes are selfish, our relationships selfish, our conversations selfish. We have exchanged the rod of Moses for the selfie stick of man. We are wound tight around our own axle, constantly getting what we have always wanted, and it’s making us so sad.

So when we lay ourselves down to sleep, we do not pray the Lord our soul to keep. We pray nothing. We say goodnight to nobody. When one of my daughters tumbles down and begins to cry, I swoop her up in my arms and softly say, “Daddy’s got you. It’s okay.” But for the modern atheist, he has no such comfort. For him, there is no cosmic Dad to hold onto, to cry to, to talk to. He has imagined Dad right out of the room and wonders why he feels so alone. He has shut his eyes tight to the notion of a Father God and questions why his world is so dark. In the ultimate analysis, his life is a blank page bearing the tragic inscription: “Goodnight nobody.”

As Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage, the men and women merely players.” We are all most certainly acting out a grand story (see my discussion of Hamlet). Yet, the atheist must also adopt the bleak words of the Player, the lead actor in a traveling theater troupe in Tom Stoppard’s great play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead:

“You don’t understand the humiliation of it, to be tricked out of the single assumption that makes our existence bearable: that somebody is watching. We’re actors, we’re the opposite of people […] We need an audience.”

sisyphus_by_o__v-d66ox90If we are all actors in the cosmic theater of life, then the notion nobody is watching must be the most harrowing of all. Our tragedies and our triumphs would ultimately amount only to the enlargement or diminishment of the boulders that we, like Sisyphus, simply push up the mountainside. Unfortunately, the best the atheist can tell us in response to this horrendous thought is that we must imagine Sisyphus to be happy.

As Christians, we must constantly affirm the existence and presence of the Almighty God who not only created all things and sustains all things but cares for all things. Our lives have meaning because we are playing to His audience. We are seeking to glorify Him. We have received His divine approval. We have purpose. We are not marbles in a box, moving about aimlessly on this pale blue dot in the universe to no eternal or meaningful end. We are children of God. We say goodnight to Him as He lays us down to sleep. We are forgiven when we sin. We are raised to our feet when we fall. And when we come to die, we may echo the words of Christ and commend our spirit not into a blank oblivion but into our Father’s hands.

The Scarlet Letter and Moral Relativity

Alienated and embittered in the woods of Puritan Boston, Hester Prynne, the adulteress of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, stands alongside her pastor and lover Arthur Dimmesdale, begging him to take her away to the Old World. As readers of the classic know, such a quest would pose a possible relief to the social humiliation and turmoil that has plagued Hester in the city since her opening scene on the scaffold for public shaming.

Yet, as Hester and Dimmesdale find solace in each other’s arms from the raging frenzy of the Puritan mob (a raging frenzy that is actually, according to C.S. Lewis, atypical of the broader Puritan community), Hester lets slip the verbal equivalent of a sledgehammer assault on the Christian framework of morality.

And Hawthorne even has her whisper it:

“‘Never! Never!’ whispered she. ‘What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other!'”

This murmur from Hester follows their discussion of the encounter that brought them to this point, namely the affair which resulted in her condemnation, his guilt, and the lovely “airy sprite” Pearl.

We must pause, however, at this statement to reflect on the depth and severity of Hester’s excuse. Her attempt to assuage Dimmesdale’s suffering and affirm her own sin-stained impudence relies firmly on her insistence that their sin “had a consecration of its own.” She claims their affair was its own sort of holy. In other words, it was, in its own way, right. For her evidence, she claims its “holiness” or “rightness” rises from both their feelings and their verbal declarations of “love” (“We felt it so” … “We said so”).

This line of thinking has become quite popular as the increase of social tolerance and religious pluralism sweeps our secular culture. Everybody is entitled to their own truth and their own moral code, right? We must be tolerant of everyone’s understanding of truth (except those darn Christians. We don’t have to tolerate their views, so if you happen to spot one of them, fire at will). If I could modernize Hester’s statement, it may sound something like, “It felt right, we love each other, and we aren’t hurting anybody. Those old geezers with the buckle shoes need to relax.”

Ok, maybe not that last bit.

However, a quick look to the Scripture sheds light precisely into the dark thickness of those woods. In Isaiah 5:20, the prophet declares, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light, and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” This encompasses any perversion or corruption of God’s good design and calling it right or pure. In a society becoming increasingly talented at this type of renaming and redefining (“marriage equality,” “pro-choice,” “misgendering”), God’s Word is clear on the distinction between good and evil. Hobbits and orcs will always be separate and distinguishable.

How many legs would a dog have if we called the tail a leg?

Four. A tail is a tail no matter what you call it.

In Romans 1:32, Paul reminds his readers of man’s tendency to call evil good: “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things [sin] deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” Hester’s attempt to justify her sin by claiming it had its own rightness falls directly in this category. Jeremiah warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9). Even Jesus knew of the insufficiency of the heart to justify behavior: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19). Jesus hears the whispers of the Hester Prynnes of the world, trying to pardon their own sinful actions not through repentance but through redefinition. In her mind, she doesn’t have to feel bad if she can convince herself she isn’t bad.

Yet, the gospel is powerful enough to withstand such attempts to dissemble, to misconstrue, to disfigure. Drawing a mustache and spectacles on the Lincoln memorial does not tarnish or redefine the great president; in fact, it only illuminates the folly of the offender. Neither does “calling it in the air” determine which side of the coin will appear on the field. God saves sinners from their hearts, no matter how “right” or “wrong” they may think it is.

So, it would seem the framework of Christian belief is not so easily penetrable by the brazen rephrasing of sinners, particularly when they swing with hammers made of foam.