The Scandal of Holiness
The following is an excerpt from Jessica Hooten Wilson’s new book The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints. It was previously published in FORMA Journal, which you can subscribe to here.
In his account of his time in the concentration camps in World War II, Elie Wiesel witnesses his father’s death. For a week, his father grows weaker and more delusional, unable even to climb out of his bed to relieve himself. The others in the camp beat him and steal his ration of bread. The elder of the block of cells advises the fifteen-year-old Wiesel, “In this place, it is every man for himself, and you cannot think of others. . . . In this place there is no such thing as father, brother, friend. . . . Let me give you some good advice: stop giving your ration of bread and soup to your old father. You cannot help him anymore. . . . In fact, you should be getting his rations.” The young boy listens as one who has experienced the worst kind of suffering—abuse, sickness, starvation, hopelessness. For a split second, he considers hoarding his father’s ration for himself. Even mulling over the possibility leaves him feeling guilty.
Why? Why does Wiesel’s hesitancy in this moment cause him guilt? To take his father’s ration is reasonable: the old man will soon die; he’ll be oblivious to his son’s theft; he may even encourage his son, in his right mind, to take the ration for himself. Not to mention, Wiesel needs the food: his body is starving. This brief moment in Wiesel’s memoir reveals that human beings are more than mere minds or appetites. There is something in us that cannot be contained within the body-mind dichotomy, something else where filial piety, generosity, magnanimity, and guilt are manifest.
Humans with Chests
Only a year before Wiesel’s deportation to Auschwitz, C. S. Lewis—seemingly a world away in England—gave a series of talks about this middle sphere of the human person, which he calls “the chest—the seat of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments.” This part of the person is what makes us human beings. It is our heart, the place where morality is felt and willed. According to Lewis, “It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man.” Whereas the world allows us only two options—we are either beasts ruled by our guts or we are brains who rule by the power of our intellect—Lewis prioritizes this third part as the true indicator of humanity. He published these talks in 1943 as The Abolition of Man.
The book centers on education and culture, seeking to answer the question, How do we cultivate human beings with chests? Not every person in the concentration camps responded to suffering with the character—or chest—of Elie Wiesel. In Night, the young Elie watches one son abandon his father and prays to not be like him. While it may seem like a strange undertaking for Lewis to have written a book about education and culture in the midst of war and the Holocaust, Lewis knew the necessity of such a work. Nazis did not rise up from hell to impose their viciousness on Europe. They were formed by the schools that were controlled by the government, the cowardly withdrawal of many churches, and the misuse of language that encouraged masses of people to swallow evil as though it was a palliative. Lewis explains that the formation of Nazis may begin with something as seemingly benign as a textbook that unwittingly dismantles objective beauty and discards our emotional responses as irrelevant.
As a storyteller, however, Lewis knew that the most compelling work was not a collection of essays on education but a novel (though I highly recommend everyone read The Abolition of Man regularly if you care about a flourishing human culture). Lewis had already published Out of the Silent Planet, the first in his space adventure trilogy. He and J. R. R. Tolkien had agreed to write the kind of stories they themselves enjoyed, what Lewis calls in the dedication of the book a “space-and-time-story.” At the end of that story—a rather crazy romp on planet Mars—the main character, Dr. Ransom, a philologist (who seems to be based on Tolkien), decides to publish his experience as fiction. For one, his story seems unbelievable and would not be heard as fact. Second, fiction has “the incidental advantage of reaching a wider public.” In this decision, we glean from Lewis his desire to proselytize, to ensure that a large audience change after reading his book. By the time Lewis writes the third novel in the series, That Hideous Strength, he informs his reader in the preface that the book is a storied version of The Abolition of Man: “a ‘tall story’ about devilry though it has behind it a serious ‘point.’”
What is that serious point Lewis hopes readers draw from That Hideous Strength?
In The Abolition of Man, Lewis argues that good education must not merely tear down jungles but also irrigate deserts. He means by this metaphor that, more than dismantling false conceptions of the world, we must teach people what they are to love. In the novel, Lewis disillusions readers of their mistaken assumptions about evil while showing us a beautiful picture of the good. Good and evil do not exist as entities “out there” but rather are planted and grow within a community through small and gradual actions that assent to or dissent from warring powers. In other words, the small decisions matter. For instance, if we lie to the DMV about whether we drove our car after the registration was expired (not that I’m speaking from experience), we have increased the strength of evil. And if we offer a room in our home to a student for a semester while she figures out finances for college, we have participated in increasing the strength of God’s kingdom. It’s like the Netflix show Stranger Things: the darkness grew stronger or weaker based on people’s actions.
Even better than a show or film that portrays reality with truthfulness, That Hideous Strength teaches readers the necessity of being formed by good culture. Those with all the head knowledge in the world still don’t stand a chance against evil if they have not cultivated a strong chest. Without chests, even those who fashion themselves as “heads” will devolve into beasts. In That Hideous Strength we witness both a community that nurtures a culture of holiness and its opposite, an infernal world that drags down the most dedicated of humanists. Lewis offers an illustrative warning based on Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians: “Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor. 15:33). But he also shows us what the church, in its highest ideal, could look like.