Creed & Culture: A Touchstone Reader
Edited with an introduction by James M. Kushiner.
ISI Books
(Wilmington, Delaware),
xv + 239 pp., $15.00 paper, 2003.

“If Christian dogma is irrelevant to life, to what, in
Heaven’s name, is it relevant?—since religious dogma
is in fact nothing but a statement of doctrines concerning the
nature of life and the universe.” Dorothy L. Sayers wrote
these words in her essay “Creed or Chaos?” Almost
in direct answer to that question—and to the title of Sayers’s
essay—the editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity has
assembled the collection at hand, Creed and Culture.

Here is a rich sampling of some of the best essays to appear
within that fine periodical during the first ten, precarious
years of its existence. For those readers not familiar with Touchstone,
it is a Chicago-based magazine edited and written by conservative
Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians. The writers and
editors are united by allegiance to a common Great Tradition,
what C. S. Lewis famously called “mere Christianity”—the
body of “belief that has been common to nearly all Christians
at all times”—and together they tackle the issues
of divisions with the Church and their meaning, works of great
literature, and the ways Christian life is played out (and ought
to be played out) within the culture at large in light of Christian
dogma.

An early “angel” of Touchstone was the
late Russell Kirk, who arranged for some modest funding for the
magazine during the early 1990s, and, in time, came to write
of it: “In a bent time, Touchstone speaks up courageously
for sound doctrine. It does not evade the great questions at
issue. Through its pages a conscience speaks to a conscience.” As
editor Kushiner states in his introduction to the present collection,
it has been the constant endeavor of Touchstone to do
just that.

Kirk himselfis represented here by his essay “T. S. Eliot
on Literary Morals,” an eloquent disquisition upon Eliot’s
thoughts on the intersection of literature and ethics as expressed
in his three Page Barbour Lectures at the University of Virginia
in 1933. “Does literature have a literary end?” asks
Kirk, introducing Eliot’s perspective. “Should books
be judged by the moral suppositions they implicitly affirm or
deny? Do Good and Evil matter? And may the operations of the
Evil Spirit (capital letters Eliot’s) be discerned among
us in the twentieth century?” Eliot answers in the affirmative
to all these questions; and Kirk deftly unpacks those answers
in his own short essay, which provides a succinct definition
of what Eliot called “the diabolic imagination.” Kirk
explains: “Literary decadence commonly is bound up with
a general intellectual and moral disorder in a society resulting,
presently, in violent social disorder. The decay of literature
appears often to result from a rejection of the ancient human
endeavor to apprehend a transcendent order in the universe and
to live in harmony with that order; for when the myths and the
dogmata are discarded, the religious imagination withers.
” Words
so full of rich wisdom and common sense can sound odd though
thoroughly refreshing in the world’s English-speaking cultures,
which today honor with prestigious awards such works as Michael
Moore’s best-selling Stupid White Men.

Kirk’s essay is one of several on literature that appear
in the present volume, which also includes a perceptive essay
by Thomas Howard on Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited,
a fascinating study by James L. Sauer on Felix Salten’s Bambi and
the Catholic imagination, and two essays by Steven Faulkner on
the state of modern poetry—the significance of poetry’s
loss as necessary knowledge within a healthy culture (largely
through the work of the modernists and their successors), and
the need to recover poetry as a living art for the sake of children.
Faulkner concludes with eloquent and true words reminiscent of
Kirk and Eliot:

In a chaotic world where our children are pushed to give vent
to their desires and indulge their appetites, reading and memorizing
poetry can be one way of ordering the soul, of disciplining feeling
with form. More than this, poetry evokes wonder, and wonder leads
to love, so that child and parent might find their place at the
feet of God. As Josef Pieper put it: “Now, as always, the
workaday world can be transcended in poetry and the other arts.
In the shattering emotion of love, beyond the delusions of sensuality,
men continue to find entrance to the still point of the turning
world.”

This close intertwining of literature with the state of culture
is discussed by James Hitchcock in a manner reminiscent of Christopher
Dawson in his essay “Christ and Culture: A Dilemma Reconsidered.” What
is culture, he asks? Hitchcock answers his own question pithily
and in a manner with which Dawson and Eliot would heartily agree: “Culture
is the totality of the life of a people, shaped and guided by
their institutions but also to some extent a spontaneous development
from the people themselves—their moral and religious beliefs,
their social customs, their attitudes towards each other and
towards the universe, their sports and games, their community
mores, and many other things.” Hitchcock uses this brief
but effective definition to develop his point that, except when
immediately usable, culture is, in this sense, intolerable to
the totalitarian mind because of the danger that people, left
to themselves, will insist on being their own potty little selves,
go against the wishes of their betters, and produce ideas and
movements inimical to the secular oligarch’s august plans
for a utopian tomorrow.

Hitchcock sees the role of the Christian in modern society as
serving in a role of protector of culture against the ravages
of the modernist state
, affirming and securing the signal importance
of religion within that culture. He wisely sees that this role
is not dependent upon politics, but occurs through the salting
down of a culture by the individual and the Church standing unabashed
and unbought by the Siren-call of the statist.

There are other essays in this collection that tackle matters
related to a wide variety of subjects, and all are worth reading
time and again—though space prevents my profiling each
one. One superb essay is Thomas Howard’s story of his own
faith journey from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism.
Another is a piece by David Mills—a writer of lively prose
who deserves to be more widely known—titled “The
Bible Tells Me So,” which advocates ongoing personal Bible
study as a path to spiritual orientation. There is something
positively reminiscent of C. S. Lewis in certain of Mills’s
turns of phrase. For instance: “[I]f we [Christians] tend
to talk a lot about sex, we do so because it is the aspect of
the inherited Christian moral teaching most directly challenged
by our culture and, sadly, by powerful and vocal movements in
our own churches. The use of sex is the question of the hour.
To accuse orthodox Christians of being obsessed with sex is somewhat
like accusing firemen in a city victimized by arsonists of thinking
too often about fires.” And, later: “We have all
sinned and, from God’s point of view, are not a pretty
sight. To think ourselves better than others because we haven’t
committed their particular sin is like a town boasting that it
has the prettiest toxic waste dump.”

This collection also contains contributions by ethicist Vigen
Guroian and the remarkably learned Patrick Henry Reardon, a man
steeped thoroughly in the authoritative commentaries of the Bible—and
adept at conveying those truths memorably. Other essays cover
such topics as the corruption of language within the Church today
and the follies of the so-called “Jesus Seminar”—a
gathering of leftist theologians who set out, several years ago,
to prove from their peculiar examination of Scripture, that Jesus
was a little more than a spokesman for some proto-Green Party.

But your servant would be remiss without mentioning a very down-to-earth
contribution, James Sauer’s heartfelt meditation “An
Everlasting Life: Remembering Mary Denise Sauer: July 12, 1995–August
26, 1995.” Sauer affirms contra mundum that each
life, however brief, however helpless, however “flawed” by
worldly standards, is precious in the sight of God, and serves
His purposes here below, though we cannot see how. Those readers
who have ever faced the loss of a small child, or lived with
a special-needs child, or known someone who has faced either
of these situations, will be especially braced and heartened
by Sauer’s essay. “We were blessed to have our Mary
for the few days she was given,” writes Sauer. “I
do not know whether she will be a child or a grown-up in heaven.
I do not know whether a cleft palate is a badge of glory in heaven
the way pierced hands are. I believe I do know at the Last Day
I will see her. She will meet me in the clouds with Him.” One
can only bow one’s head and embrace these words for their
wisdom.

As Kushiner notes in his introduction, Russell Kirk was known
for planting trees for the benefit of those who would come after
him. Kirk planted for posterity—and not trees only, but
also wise words of truth, captured on tape and in his myriad
articles and books. Creed & Culture performs a similar
act for readers of the present and future. It reflects the richness
of a well-written periodical which is a pleasure to read and
a source of invaluable insight to the modern Christian seeking
to better honor God and in faith defend the permanent things
while living in today’s world. 

James E. Person Jr. is
the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a
Conservative Mind
(Madison Books, 1999).

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