Results tagged “Depravity” from Reformation21 Blog

When It Happens Among Us...

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Great sadness and shock have struck the denomination of which I am a minister--the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. That shock pales in comparison with the tragedy faced by the members of Chabad Poway who suffered grievous loss at the hands of John Earnest, a member of an Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The unspeakable, which normally takes place far from the door-step of denominations like the OPC, has kicked in the door and left carnage: a race-inspired shooting, death and destruction. The statements released by the Pastor of the church, and the Moderator and Stated Clerk of the OPC speak clearly for themselves, and also for all Orthodox Presbyterians.

There is no defense for such an act. There is no justification. No explicitly Christian theology can ever justify such terror mingled with anti-Semitism or other racial bias and sin. Orthodox Presbyterians know this is not the norm. Racial bias and violence are not taught explicitly or implicitly from its pulpits (at least not in my experience). The only explicit racism I have encountered in the OPC was that which was dealt with in a church discipline case, to the credit of the church in which it occurred. Those who have truly embraced Reformed theology know that God's plan of salvation transcends racial, social and economic borders. They know that the free offer of the gospel goes out to all regardless of race or religion. In fact, those who truly adhere to Reformed theology have a better-than-average understanding of the globalization of the gospel, promised early on to Abram (Gen. 12) and then commanded in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18ff). In fact, I would adamantly insist that any racism that was historically tolerated or propagated in churches that professed to believe Reformed theology was glaringly antithetical to the system of doctrine which they professed. 

The purpose of this article, however, is not to defend Reformed theology or the Orthodox Presbyterian Church from charges of racism, charges made either from within and without. That is easy enough to do. We have such clear words in Scripture. For instance, Ex. 22:21; 1 Sam 16:7; Acts 17:26; Gal. 3:28; Revelation 7:9. Particularly when it comes to anti-Semitism, the most obvious refutation from a Christian perspective are the words of our Lord Jesus from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). We also have clear teaching on our doctrinal standards. Westminster Larger Catechism 191 abundantly speaks to the matter of racism as a heinous sin and our duties towards others. Neither do I wish to contest that racism exists in reformed denominations: that would be like saying the pride does not exist in Reformed denominations. Nor do I wish to contest the argument that there has been a long history of anti-semitism in the church. Martin Luther was guilty of it. However, one is hard-pressed to provide convincing argumentation that the modern-day American church is anti-Semitic--actually, quite the opposite. Given the ill-advised admixture of politics and faith, the American church has largely been pro-Israel.

Neither do I wish to dwell on the unhelpful rhetoric of some within the church towards this situation. "Pastors need to take a look at themselves," we are told. Of course we do. As long as that means all pastors, including those who are making these calls (and in all areas of our lives). Some comments coming out of those quarters have come close to insinuating that a lack of careful teaching in John Earnest's church was the cause of this shooting. That argument is facile and is guilty of the very error it accuses others of: it lacks nuance, sensitivity and any real insight of that church's preaching and teaching. By the same argument we might as well blame Jesus' teaching and lack of learned sensitivity to the Jews (of two thousand years ago!) for their rejection and crucifixion of him. The church is not to blame, though it is an easy target. The pastor in question is not to blame either, and these accusations appear to pander to the current knee-jerk reaction of the world which reduces everything to bias, race or inequality of some kind.

Moreover, I do not wish to take a pot-shot at the family of the shooter. I do not know the family, their parenting, family-life, or church commitment. It is simply impossible to speculate on whether such were causes.

Yet, of this much we can be sure: from a denomination which highly values God's gracious covenant and His promises, from a family which presumably raised their children under these promises, came one who perpetrated a devilish act, supported by a devilish manifesto. The reality check for us all is this: it could be your son or my son that commits such an act. Or for pastors, it could be one your members under your ministry that commits such a crime. That includes pastors who make social justice the primary application of the gospel of Christ. Left to the depravity of their hearts, any of our children (God forbid) could end up acting out horrific racially or ideologically motivated crimes. 

Whether as preachers of the gospel or as parents, Scripture shows us that God's covenant is generational (Gen. 17:7 and Acts 2:39 for example). As covenantal Christians we expect, as we make use of God's means of grace in church and the home, that God will bless our children with faith and trust in Him and His Son. But, does faithful preaching and parenting lead to faithful members and children? Generally, the answer is "yes!" Not that the faithfulness of the preacher or the parent is the cause of children coming to faith, but God has given us means to use them and raise our children in covenant nurture. We ought, as we do with the preaching of the word (c.f. Romans 10:14), to look for God to work through those means, in the church and the home.

However, Scripture also provides us with multiple examples and explicit teaching that this is not always the case. Proverbs spends much of its time instructing parents and children in the way they should go. It holds out life for the child who hears, believes and obeys, and poverty, sorrow and death to the one who rejects that teaching. 

The Proverbs do not teach us that if we are faithful enough as parents our children will receive our teaching.1 Rather, they reveal that we are to be faithful in our teaching of our children and they are to receive that teaching. However, they also reveal--just as with the preached Word (the primary means of grace)--some will receive it and others will not.

Proverbs 5 starts like many other chapters of the book, with instructions to hear and learn and be wise. There are many such instructions in Proverbs. The faithful parent, pictured chapter after chapter in these Proverbial instructions repeatedly calls the child to a faith-filled response. However, Proverbs 5 reveals that in spite of such faithful parenting and instruction (and we know the same is true for preaching) there is responsibility to receive that same instruction. Observe the dynamic of Proverbs 5:7ff,

"And now, O sons, listen to me,
and do not depart from the words of my mouth.
Keep your way far from her,
and do not go near the door of her house,
lest you give your honor to others
and your years to the merciless,
lest strangers take their fill of your strength,
and your labors go to the house of a foreigner,
and at the end of your life you groan,
when your flesh and body are consumed,
and you say, "How I hated discipline,
and my heart despised reproof!
I did not listen to the voice of my teachers
or incline my ear to my instructors.
I am at the brink of utter ruin
in the assembled congregation."2

Do we not see the call to hear? Do we not see the call to hear and listen? Do we not see the warnings to stay away from troubles? Do we not see the same call repeated many times over in Proverbs? And yet, it seems, the son in this case rejects the godly counsel of his parents. What he heard in the pew, what he heard in the living room, he did not embrace by faith, but rather rejected it for the fleeting delights of the world.

Do we not see that this could be us? It could not just be our church - from under our own ministries - from which such evil comes, but also from our own families. It could be from white families, African-American families, Chinese-American families or Welsh-American (in my case) families from which one comes who is a devil. The faithfulness of teaching in church or in the home does not guarantee the faith or godliness of the hearer. As Thomas Goodwin noted, "Judas heard all of Christ's sermons."3 It could be that any of our children may be lost to anti-Semitism, inner-city gang life and warfare, drugs or any other such evils. We are right to examine ourselves in such times of tragedy. We should ask ourselves, "Is my preaching as a minister generally faithful or not? Is my parenting generally faithful or not?" But, to simplistically jump to a conclusion about a church, a pastor or a family is unbiblical and blinds us to the fact that God will have mercy on whom he will, and will harden whom he wills (Rom. 9:15, 18).

What then is our remedy? First, we ought not to think the route of the Poway shooter is the norm. Faithful pastors and parents have every expectation of godly children without ever falling into the sin of presumption. So, we still raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Second, we pray and pray (see Calvin's four rules of prayer, Institutes Vol III, Ch. 20 for the atmosphere of this prayer - confidence and expectation) that God will bless those means with faith in the hearer. In other words, we are to do what God has told us to do and leave the rest up to him. Third, parents of straying children ought never to give up. Church discipline is sure to follow in this case. Therein lies our hope for the church and the perpetrator. Church discipline was not instituted by Christ to principally tell the world that such behavior is "not welcome in the church" (that's the world's language). That is a shallow view of the means of grace. Rather, church discipline first protects and vindicates the honor of Christ, then it preserves and protects the church from wickedness, impurity and danger, and if the Lord wills, may it be a means of grace for the perpetrator in this situation. Let's pray to that end - and for the perpetrator's own salvation.

The act of terror in Poway was Satanic and deserves not only the full measure of the civil magistrate's rule, but also of the church's rule. However, may we never forget that this evil has come from within the covenant community (see Acts 2:23) and could have come from anywhere in the church, or any family. We need grace to be humble and Christlike in our self-reflection. Then, as we seek to be careful in our call for self-examination - let us be informed in such calls. By all means, let us be careful what we say, how we say it, especially in public ministries. But let us all--pastors and parents alike--approach this with the realization that such a tragedy could strike far closer to home that we ever could have expected.

1. Prov. 22:6 ought not be appealed to as a counterpoint here, without rigorous research and exegesis of that passage.

2. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Pr 5:7-14.

3. Alexander Whyte Thirteen Appreciations (Fleming H. Revell Co.) p. 174.


Rev. Matthew Holst is the pastor of Shiloh Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC. 


When Our Children Sin

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Do you remember when you first learned you would have a child? You likely prayed over your little one day after day. Even though you'd never met him or her in person, you loved your child more than anything. You waited for months--and if you were an adoptive parent, sometimes years--anticipating the amazing moment when you would hold that precious gift of God in your arms.

As new parents, it can be hard to think of our sweet baby as a sinner--unless he or she cries all night, then we are convinced of it! It isn't until our precious little one starts to move around, gets into things, and even starts to talk back that the evidence of their sinfulness hits us. That first time they reach out to touch something right after we told them not to, or the first time they yelled "No!" in response to an instruction we give, the truth that we knew in our mind about their sinful state is fully realized. The doctrine of sin we learned in church hits us square in the face: our children inherited the same sinful state we all inherit from Adam (1 Cor. 15:22, Ps. 51:5).

Despite this theological knowledge, sometimes it's shocking to see our children's sin on full display: angry outbursts, lying, stealing, idolatry, bullying, defiance, to name a few. And all this can happen before a child enters kindergarten! As our children grow into their teen years, they will face greater temptations to sin. More than shocking, it's often disheartening to watch our children sin. It can break our heart when our children make choices that lead them farther and farther off the path of life. Many a parent has wept over a child's sinfulness.

Preach, Point, and Pray the Gospel

When we see our children sin, whether as a young toddler touching breakables on the shelf or as a first grader lying about a school assignment or as a teen watching a movie they were forbidden to watch, we need to remember the gospel. When we despair over our children's choices, we need to remember the gospel. When we fear the path our children are headed down, we need to remember the gospel.

We need to preach the gospel to ourselves, remembering that we are all born fallen in sin. We were once separated from God, and it was by his grace that he saved us. We must remember that our children need the same gospel we need. It's not going to be our excellent parenting, or the top-notch education, or the amazing life experiences that transform our children; rather, it's going to be the power of the gospel. We must trust and look for God to work in their hearts and lives. We also need to point our children to the gospel. We have a responsibility as parents to teach and disciple them in the faith (see Deut. 6:6-9).

We need to teach our children who Jesus is and what he came to do. We need to teach them about his perfect life lived for them, his sacrificial death, his triumphant resurrection from the grave, and his ascension back into heaven. The gospel is the story we tell them when they sit, when they walk along the way, when they lie down, and when they rise. At all times and in all places, we point our children to the gospel. While it is the Spirit who brings our children from death to life, God uses us as parents as one of the means through which he saves our children. Perhaps it could be compared to how God uses our prayers to carry out his will; he doesn't need to, but he chooses to. This truth should compel us all the more to be diligent in our labors to teach and instruct our children in God's Word.

Third, we need to pray for the Lord's work in our children's heart. As parents, it's easy to focus our prayers on the health of our children or our children's success in school. We may find ourselves praying they would develop good friendships or that they wouldn't be bullied on the playground. We may even pray that they would stop fighting with their siblings or having tantrums. These are all excellent and important prayers. But the prayer we can't forget to pray is that God would ratify his covenant in our children's hearts. We must pray that God would save our children from their sins.

A Parent's Prayer

Father in Heaven, I come to you today with a burdened heart. A weary heart. A heavy heart. Parenting is hard. Just when I think I know what I'm doing, something changes, and I need to learn something new. Some days I wonder if I'll ever feel confident in my parenting. But maybe that's the point. Maybe I'm not supposed to be confident in my methods and strategies. Maybe those methods aren't supposed to always "work." Maybe parenting is supposed to keep me on my toes because instead of trusting in what I am doing as a parent, I need to trust in you. Maybe parenting is hard so that I would learn to depend and rely on you and your Spirit to be at work in my life and in the life of my children.

Father, I bring my children before you. They are covenant children and enjoy all the rich benefits of being a part of the church, of hearing the Word preached each week, of having other adults pour into their lives, of learning and memorizing your Word. I pray you would ratify the covenant in them. Bring them from death to life by the power of your Spirit. Open their minds and hearts to see their need for Jesus. Convict them of sin and draw them to repentance. Help them to love you with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. Be at work in them, refining and shaping them into the image of Christ. Protect their minds and hearts from evil and may they never know a day when they did not know you as Lord of their lives. May Jesus always be their greatest treasure.

I pray for my parenting decisions and responses. Help me to parent out of your wisdom and not my own. Help me to seek your glory and not my own. Help me to speak the truth in love, point my children to Christ, teach and discipline them according to your Word, and love them as you have loved me. Help me not to fret, worry, or fear. Help me not to despair. Help me not to react. Help me to remember that they are sinners, just as I am. Help me to remember that they need a Savior, just as I do. Help me to trust and rest in you and the power of the gospel at work in me and in them. Help me to be quick to repent, slow to anger, and generous with love and affection.

Good things happen while we wait. It took time for these precious souls to be knitted in the womb--what joy I felt at their arrival! May I be patient as I wait for the work you are doing in their hearts. Help me to watch and wait with hope and trust. Help me to see and trace the evidence of your grace at work in their hearts. Help me to glory in your goodness and faithfulness in Christ.

Please hear all these cries of my heart. In Jesus's name I pray, amen.


Note: This post is based on Christina's new book, Sufficient Hope: Gospel Meditations and Prayers for Moms, published with P&R Publishing.

Bio: Christina Fox is a graduate of Covenant College where she currently serves on the advisory board. She received her Master's in Counseling Psychology from Palm Beach Atlantic University. Christina serves on the national women's ministry team of the PCA and is the editor of enCourage. She is a speaker and author of several books, including Closer than a Sister, Idols of a Mother's Heart, and Sufficient Hope. You can find her at www.christinafox.com.

 


The Power of Biblical Thinking

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Somewhat surprisingly, there has been a resurgence of interest in Norman Vincent Peale's power of positive thinking in our day. The Reformed Church in America minister--famous for giving people a panacea to protect themselves from all undesirable thoughts and actions--carved out a place for himself in American psychology and religion from the mid to late-twentieth century. President Trump has gone so far as to praise Peale for helping him embrace the idea of self-worth. In the newest season of Marvel's Jessica Jones, a character reads Peal's The Power of Positive Thinking while riding the public transport through a sketchy borough of the city. Ironically, this scene, full of sanguinity, fails to meet the criteria of what we might otherwise consider to be film noir. Nevertheless, the idea that you have the ability to think and speak away everything undesirable seems to have made a renewed headway in our culture.

Every week, I stumble across memes and posts on social media in which someone expresses to someone else the idea that they are "wonderful," "beautiful," "special," and "loved" (oftentimes, with the adverb "so" prefixed to the verb "loved"). When I read such sentiments, my mind immediately turns to the SNL sketch in which Stuart Smalley gives himself daily affirmations: "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough and doggonit, people like me." 

Joking aside, there is a draw to positive thoughts and words. No one enjoys being around a curmudgeon. No one likes living with fears and discouragement. All of us find it refreshing to spend time with optimists. There is enough misery, sorrow, sadness and suffering all around us. It is certainly a whole lot more enjoyable to spend time with positive people. 

Furthermore, there is something supremely biblical about thinking right thoughts. The Apostle Paul told the believers in Philippi, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." A little later in the same chapter, he wrote, "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Phil. 4:8). This is not, however, the same as the saccharine sentimentality that drips off of your Instagram feed. The context and foundation for the Apostle's admonitions is the redeeming work of Jesus. 

The problem with so much of what passes as spiritually enriching maxims is that it is not rooted in the truth of Scripture. God's word gives us the following descriptions in order to help us think properly about what we are by nature:

"There are none righteous, no not one...no one does good." (Psalm 14:1; 53:1; Rom. 3:10-12)

"All we like sheep have gone astray." (Is. 53:6)

"The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and raw wounds." (Is. 1:5-6) 

"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9)

"You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked...and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind." (Eph. 2:1-3)

"You were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (Eph. 2:12). 

There are hundreds of similar verses that depict our sinful spiritual condition before God by nature. One can easily understand why a meme that reads, "You are so beautiful and worth it," is vastly more popular than one that says, "We all are children of wrath by nature." The former feeds our flesh. The later is an affront to our sinful pride and self-righteousness. 

That being said, Scripture gives us astonishing descriptions of how God views those who are united to His Son by faith. Scripture tells us that "even when we were dead in our trespasses" (Eph. 2:5), God, who is rich in mercy and love toward us, made us alive together with Christ. We are now "the apple of his eye" (Zech. 2:8) and "jewels of his crown" (Zech. 9:16). Believers are "sons and daughters of the King" (Ps. 45:9; 82:6; Gal. 3:26), "the bride of the Lamb" (Rev. 19:9; 21:9), "His glorious inheritance" (Eph. 1:18), saints (Phil. 1:1; 4:22; Col. 1:2, 1:4, 1:12, 1:26), the excellent ones (Ps. 16:3) and those "of whom the world is not worthy" (Heb. 11:38). 

In Scripture, there is a beautiful juxtaposition of what we are by nature and what we are by grace. Viewed from only one side, we would end up living in either hopeless pessimism or naive optimism. However, when you look at yourself through the biblical lens of God's Law, you discover that, "you are a worse sinner than you ever dared imagine;" then, when you look at yourself through the lens of Christ, you realize that "you're more loved than you ever dared hope." There is vastly greater comfort in that affirmation than in any empty shells of manufactured positive thinking. 

Hollywood, Capitol Hill and the Human Heart

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As more women bring to light the heinous sexual misconduct of male celebrities and politicians, it would do us good to remember two all-important truths: First, God's word testifies to the pervasive depravity of all men and women (Rom. 3:10-18); and, second, Scripture holds out the universal remedy for sinful men and women--namely, Christ and him crucified. To make this observation is in no way whatsoever to downplay the urgent need we have to protect women from sexual predators and to put punitive measures in place to prevent sexual harassment and abuse of all shapes and forms. It is, however, to highlight that there are dangers associated with the media's fixation on only one or two forms of sexual sin, while neglecting the biblical testimony about the pervasive spiritual depravity of men and women. When depravity is denied, the Gospel is inevitably neglected or rejected. When the Gospel is neglected or rejected, there can be no prospect of forgiveness, cleansing, restoration and renewal--the hope of which Scripture constantly holds forth while bringing indictments against the sin of mankind.  

We ought to welcome an exposure of sexual sin in a culture that has celebrated, embraced and fought for every other conceivable form of sexual sin. However, only highlighting one or two specific forms of sexual depravity will have the inevitable and undesired result of fueling self-righteousness among those outraged by it. When the media singles out one particular sexual sin, while approving almost all other forms, one who hasn't fallen into a socially unacceptable form of sexual sin begins to go on a self-righteous rampage about the sin of others while refusing to acknowledge his or her own depravity. 

There is no outrage in the media about the absolutely hellish nature of pornography and the destructive nature it has on marriages, young people and on society as a whole. As our culture rejects the clear teaching of Scripture, and increasingly promotes and defends polyamorous, incestuous and every conceivable form of androgynous and homoerotic act, we are sliding into a veritable pit of sexual depravity. The media would have us believe that the great problem in Hollywood and Capitol Hill is the problem of power structures that allow men to abuse that power in order to gratify sexual desire. The news outlets may shine an occasional spotlight on the female teacher who engaged in inappropriate sexual relations with an underage student; but, it is men in positions of power that are the chief perpetrators. Nevertheless, it is not power structures that lead male politicians and celebrities or female teachers into sexually depraved acts. If we only focus on nurture, to the neglect of nature, we will ultimately bring about nothing lasting. 

The Scriptures are clear that the problem in Hollywood and Capitol Hill is the problem of the human heart. We are all fallen in Adam (Romans 5:12-21). The guilt and corruption of Adam's sin was imputed to all of his descendants. There is no other explanation for why Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Anthony Weiner, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore and Al Franken have done the repulsive things they have done. There is no other explanation for why you and I have done all of the sinful things that we have done. 

When the Apostle Paul set forth the Bible's exposure of our depravity, he explained: "the Scripture imprisoned everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe" (Gal. 3:22). The Scripture exposes sin and confines all men and women under sin's dominion and condemnation so that those who will believe on Christ will come to him for forgiveness and redemption. If all we do is agree with the secular world about the heinousness of one or two forms of sexual sin, and throw our support to the call for accountability and repercussions, we are simply wielding God's Law. However, when we acknowledge the testimony of Scripture about our own pervasive depravity and our need for Christ, we will be all the more ready to extend the hope of forgiveness and cleansing in Christ to those whose depravity has been publicly exposed. This is an opportunity for the church to speak to the culture at a time when the culture is still acknowledging certain forms of sin and depravity. The window may be small, and the moment is passing by quickly; but, if we have eyes to see and hearts that are burdened for the lost, we will seek to seize the moment for the redemption of both men and women around us.  

Giving the Devil His Due

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Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky

By Jessica Hooten Wilson

Cascade Books, 2017

156 pages, paper, $21.00

It is a sad and tragic irony that many private Christian schools do not teach Flannery O'Connor. I say it is sad and tragic because O'Connor was one of the very few major American authors who was an orthodox, Nicene Christian. As far as I can tell, not a single canonical American poet or fiction writer between the Puritan period and O'Connor could have signed a statement affirming their belief in the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and/or Resurrection.

I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but I do not believe that it is. Consider the roll call of the American literary pantheon: Twain, Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman, Poe, Faulkner, London, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Henry James, William James, Longfellow, etc. Not a true believer in the lot. Granted, the authors of Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur were strong Christians, but neither is considered a member of the pantheon. T. S. Eliot did mature into a Christian, but only after he left America for England, Toryism, and the Anglo-Catholic Church.

In sharp contrast, O'Connor's faith in the Incarnate and Risen Christ who died for our sins is as evident in her novels and stories as it is in her letters and essays. Why then do many Christian schools shy away from her? Part of it is her use of the "n" word, but that is not the whole story, since that forbidden word crops up in other authors.

The deeper reason why O'Connor is left off Christian reading lists is that her work is dark, pessimistic, and unsettling. Evil is just too real, too tangible in her stories, and that disturbs students, parents, and teachers alike. Never mind the fact that Christian parents allow their kids to watch truly despicable, utterly non-redemptive movies and television shows about serial killers. Somehow, that's OK, but O'Connor . . . well, best not to upset and confuse the laity.

Of course, by that logic, Christians should also avoid the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, for his stories are as dark, pessimistic, and unsettling as those of O'Connor. "O'Connor and Dostoevsky," writes Jessica Hooten Wilson in her new book, Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky, "both created deformed characters--prostitutes, idiots, holy fools, and social pariahs--to explore such problems as the suffering of children as a refutation to God's existence, the moral bankruptcy of modern atheism, the universal parricidal impulse, the demonic as a real force, and the potential for grace to manifest itself in the natural realm" (11).

Wilson, Associate Professor of Literature and Creative Writing and associate director of the Honors Scholars Program at John Brown University, is certainly not the first critic to forge a connection between O'Connor and Dostoevsky. But she has done something both original and admirable in drawing out for her readers the dialogue with evil--not abstract but personal evil--that gives such resonance to Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and O'Connor's Wise Blood, The Violent Bear it Away, and stories like "The Displaced Person," "A Good Man is Hard to Find," "A View of the Woods," and "The Lame Shall Enter First." Dostoevsky and O'Connor, Wilson explains, are unique among modern writers in that "they give the demonic a fair hearing, and make evil appear powerfully real" (14). Indeed, she argues that "[n]othing frustrates first-time readers of O'Connor and Dostoevsky as much as their convincing portrayals of the demonic" (14).

Why is it vital that Dostoevsky and O'Connor give the devil his due? Because at the core of their work lies a choice, an either/or choice between following Satan and his Kingdom of Violence or yielding to the authority of Christ and embracing his sacrifice and mercy. Ivan and Rayber, the chief voices of atheism in The Brothers Karamazov and The Violent Bear it Away, refuse to accept the reality of the Christian God because they are tormented by the evil and suffering in the world, particularly that inflicted upon innocent children. And yet, for all their passionate outrage, the suffering innocents remain to them but abstractions. Neither evil nor goodness touches them as an incarnate reality.

Their rejection of God prevents them from feeling any active kind of love or compassion toward those who suffer. Worse yet, it prevents any possibility of hope for the sufferers or meaning in their suffering. "Although Ivan and Rayber desire to save the victims of the world, they are removing themselves from the opposition to violence, the source of protection, the foundation of individual worth, the only God who suffers, the origin of love itself. And thus, their love is nothing but mere fantasy" (33). The stories Ivan recounts about abused and terrorized children are disturbing to read, but we should be even more disturbed by Ivan's unwillingness to consider the only possible solution.

Dostoevsky and O'Connor's focus on innocent suffering makes their works hard to read, but that pales beside an even more disturbing element of their fiction: their frequent recourse to parent-child strife, often resulting in parricidal violence. Wilson argues effectively for the centrality of such strife and violence to the spiritual message of her authors. There is a direct link between the desire to kill one's father and the desire for there to be no God; both desires promise autonomy to the one who frees himself from the tyranny of the father/creator.

The overbearing mothers who populate O'Connor's fiction are often there, Wilson explains, to "prompt their children to recognize that they are not self-begotten creatures, that they have an origin apart from themselves. For similar reasons do people reject God--he reminds them of their origin and asks them to renounce their self for the good of others. O'Connor reveals autonomy as the identifying feature of many of her characters, so any relationships that disturb this autonomy are intolerable" (69). Like Milton's Satan, who claims that he begot himself, the human being who chooses Satan rather than Christ as his model will fall, with equal folly and destruction, into the false lure of autonomy.

Wilson does a fine job explicating this spiritual-emotional-ethical agon, this struggle over whom we will imitate in our search for self-identity, but she does not do it alone. In keeping with a much-needed revival of interest in the work of René Girard that has been sweeping through the Academy, particularly the Christian Academy, Wilson couches her analysis in the terminology of such incisive Girard studies as Violence and the Sacred, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, and Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky.

According to Girard, "all human beings are essentially mimetic creatures who imitate the desires of others" (2). Our first mimetic desire is directed toward our parents, particularly our father, but it later spreads to include others in the community. This does not pose a problem in and of itself until two people desire the same thing, causing them to become rivals, and leading ultimately to violence. Throughout history, communities have dealt with the problem of mimetic rivalry through the ritual of scapegoating. Indeed, the role of sacrifice is, and has always been, to redirect violence into safe, non-destructive channels.

But Ivan Karamazov refuses to accept the divine scapegoat who would save him from the destructive potential of his mimetic rivalry. As a result, his desire becomes violent, leading not only to the murder of the father but to his own psychological and intellectual suicide--for to kill the father with whom one identifies is to kill oneself as well.

Piggybacking off Girard's analysis of Dostoevsky, Wilson maintains that this dual relationship between father and son, murder and suicide "parallels that with the divine creator in whose image we are made. . . . in an effort to project ourselves as autonomous individuals, we necessitate the disposal of those who begot us. Thus, the rejection of supernatural authority or metaphysical origin corresponds with the rebellion against earthly authority and origin" (52).

The unitarians, transcendentalists, deists, and atheists who make up the American literary pantheon rarely confront us with our own mimetic rivalry against authority figures, whether human or divine. Indeed, most exalt the formation of the autonomous individual as an absolute good. Sadly, there are many Christian writers today who share in that exaltation. Like their skeptical counterparts, they would rather not be challenged by Girardian writers like O'Connor and Dostoevsky who remind us that the temptation to shake off all social and moral codes and limitations often proceeds from a very real, very personal devil.


Louis Markos (www.Loumarkos.com), Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his books include From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, Literature: A Student's Guide, and Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetic Tradition.