When you get intimately familiar with any artist’s work, you become delightedly aware of the development of his style. I was reminded of this lately while working on a book about Shakespeare; more than ever, I was impressed by the vast difference between the “middle” Shakespearean style and the later style (or styles).
The pithy monosyllables and simple syntax of Julius Caesar (I’m sure you can recite much of it yourself) hardly seem to have been written by the same man who makes King Lear bellow almost incomprehensible things.
We find similarly amazing differences between, say, the early and late string quartets of Beethoven. Close attention to any creative artist, I suppose, will yield parallel cases.
An observation of Chesterton’s brought this to mind. In The Everlasting Man, he remarks that Socrates’ death seems to interrupt, rather arbitrarily, conversations that might have gone on forever; whereas Jesus’ death occurs exactly where the salvation story requires it. Nobody, as far as I know, has ever purported to distinguish between earlier and later styles of Jesus, or to imagine how He might have changed if He had lived longer.
All four of the Gospels tell us the same story. Jesus is suddenly arrested and murdered by His enemies, as His friends and disciples flee. The Crucifixion is not an interruption but a climax. It is not as if Jesus has to change His plans; on the contrary, this is the plan. It is exactly what He has predicted and expected all along.
There are no loose ends. Jesus, unlike a modern celebrity or politician, is not in the process of learning, developing, growing, evolving, or “reinventing” Himself. He has been born to do, say, and suffer exactly what He has done, said, and suffered. His mission is complete. In their epistles, his Apostles don’t speak of carrying on the work He has begun but was tragically prevented from finishing; they assume that His divine destiny has been perfectly fulfilled. So much for the popular idea that those Apostles took His essentially Simple Message and distorted it, as if we moderns see what Jesus was driving at but Paul and the others just didn’t get it.
And what was this Simple Message? The atheist Christopher Hitchens seems to think Christian morality boils down to a bland “Be nice”—and he mocks this as so obvious that it is both superfluous and cruel to reinforce the Simple Message with the dogmatic trappings of crucifixion, redemption, resurrection, sacraments, theology, and all that. He is especially incensed that ecclesiastical authorities have been so censorious and unscientific about masturbation.
The loveliest argument I know against unbelief was made by a woman whose name I have forgotten, quoted by the theologian John Baillie in Our Knowledge of God; it boils down to this: “If there is no God, whom do we thank?”
The force of this hit me on a mild November evening when I was oppressed by woes; I prayed for a little relief and tried counting my blessings instead of my grievances. I’ve long known that a great secret of happiness is gratitude, but that didn’t prepare me for what happened next.
It wasn’t a mystical experience, just a simple mental one (speaking of simple messages). I began by comparing my lot with that of countless others, many of whom are starving or dying of horrible diseases. Then, I reflected that the modern world teaches us to be ingrates. What else is political life for? Democracy is obsessed with supposed rights, injuries, and entitlements.
Within a few minutes, as I munched a cheeseburger, my mind told me how unlikely my own existence was: My parents’ meeting (remarkably improbable, too, just in mathematical terms), the love they gave me, my living in the Christian Era, my later Baptism (I became a Catholic at age 15), the priests who taught me, my dear stepfather and his holy parents, my friends, my children, and on and on—in spite of all my own sins. I could hardly think of anything in my life that couldn’t be seen as a gift from God. Now I was over 61, still showered with blessings every day, despite all my attempts to make myself unhappy by brooding on my petty dissatisfactions.
As one of the characters in Lear tells his father: “Thy life’s a miracle.” Of whom is that not true?
The more we reflect on the sheer oddity of our very existence and, in addition, of our eligibility for salvation, the deeper our gratitude must be. Amazing grace indeed! To call it astounding is to express the matter feebly. Why me? How on earth could I ever have deserved this, the promise of eternal joy?
And given all this, in comparison with which winning the greatest lottery in the world is just a minor fluke, how can I dare to sin again, or to be anything less than a saint for the rest of my life?
Yet I know that my own horrible spiritual habits will keep drawing me downward every hour. Like most men, or maybe more than most, I am my own worst enemy, constantly tempted to repay my Savior with my self-centered ingratitude. When I think of my sins, the debt of thanksgiving itself seems far too heavy to pay. No wonder He commands us to rejoice. It’s by no means the easiest of our duties.