Against secular smugness
Ralph C. Wood on the theological threads in the work of P. D. James
Ralph C. Wood has been a welcome repeat guest on the Journal. His first outing with us was in 1993, when he consented to talk about the backslidden comedy of then-recently deceased novelist Peter De Vries. In subsequent visits, he shared insights about Flannery O’Connor, J. R. R. Tolkien, and G. K. Chesterton. In 2002, we talked about the fiction of P. D. James (1920-2014), about whom Wood had written an article entitled “Rapidly Rises the Morning Tide: An Essay on P. D. James’s The Children of Men.” Several years later, we recorded a reading of that article as one of our Audio Reprints. An excerpt from “Rapidly Rises the Morning Tide” follows:
“The key to P. D. James’s fiction, especially her later work, is her Christianity. She regards our cultural malaise as having theological no less than ethical cause. The murder in A Taste for Death occurs in a church, for instance, and the murderer is not only a sadist but also a nihilist who revels in the god-like power inherent in the threat of death. He kills in order to prove that the cosmos is empty of divinity. Like Dostoevsky, James is determined to ask whether, if there be no God, all goodness is vacated and all evils unleashed. As a Christian, James knows that the answer is yes. But as a novelist, she has sought to make her faith implicit rather than overt. In interviews following televised versions of her work, James has pointed out that Adam Dalgliesh, her chief detective, is a confirmed skeptic. She does not want to confine her hero within her own convictions, nor to impose them on her readers. James is an artist whose moral instruction is conveyed indirectly through aesthetic appeal, not a prophet who seeks our conversion by directly declaring the divine Word.
“The artistic indirectness of James’s Christian vision is made most evident in Innocent Blood, the novel whose manner and matter most clearly resemble The Children of Men. Strictly speaking, neither novel is a detective story. There being no crime to solve, James focuses her earlier novel on a much deeper concern: the enormous subtlety of evil. Innocent Blood contains not one protagonist but three, and each of them surprises us in the capacity to do both wicked and generous things. No sooner have we begun to regard the novel's central characters as despicable people than James reveals their own secret pathos — a suffering so deep that, though it does not excuse their sins and crimes, it makes us understand and even pity them.
“Though patient with evil, James is impatient with those who deny its moral and spiritual complexity. The profoundest human horrors do not admit of ready resolution — as if, James once declared in an interview, Parliament could pass a law abolishing original sin. Innocent Blood features a sociologist named Maurice Palfrey who believes, in fact, that evil can be purged by governmental measures. Since we are creatures of our environment, he holds, we need only to improve environmental conditions in order to prevent crime and other social problems. It follows that Palfrey regards Christianity — with its stress on ingrained sin and transcendent redemption — as the great deceit.
“Palfrey offers a veritable litany of what he considers to be the major Christian offenses: the monstrous notion that there is a God who created us in the divine image (when it seems obvious that we have made God in our own likeness), the pathetic injustice of blaming people for inborn sin when they have no choice in the matter, and the laughable contradiction between the doctrine of the Virgin Birth and the sacramental view of sex as being so holy it must be confined to marriage. Most egregious of all is the doctrine of atonement, with its barbaric idea that the Son must ‘propitiate His Father’s desire for vengeance.’ Had enlightened folks like himself been present at the crucifixion, says Palfrey, they would have intervened to prevent such a grotesque injustice. ‘But the God of Love was apparently content,’ Palfrey laments, ‘to let it happen — indeed, willed it to happen — and to His only son. You can’t ask us to believe in a God of Love who behaves less compassionately than would the least of his creatures.’
“James’s wrath against such secular smugness is exceeded only by her impatience at the complacency and cowardice of her fellow Christians. Palfrey makes his assault on Christianity during a television debate with an Anglican bishop. Instead of replying that the sociologist has been appropriately scandalized by the offense of the gospel—by the good news that God transforms the worst human evil into the highest divine redemption — the bishop blinks. He is too benignly disposed, too timid and vacillating about his own Christian faith, to offer an untrammeled affirmation of it. And so James has a confessed murderess denounce the weakling prelate as he deserves: ‘Poor bishop! He could only win by saying things that he'd be too embarrassed to utter and which neither the BBC nor the viewers—especially the Christians—would in the least wish to hear.’”
In addition to our Audio Reprint of “Rapidly Rises the Morning Tide” — a Theology Today article from which the above paragraphs are excerpted — Ralph C. Wood’s insights are also evident in two of our Conversations: Hillbilly Thomist: Flannery O'Connor & the Truth of Things and Maker of Middle-Earth, in which Wood is joined by Tom Shippey and Joseph Pearce to talk about J. R. R. Tolkien.