Category Archives: Non-fiction

Prometheus, bounder

Today it rained. This is a good thing, just here and just now. We’ve had it mighty dry for a spell in these here parts. I think a lot of farmers got a drink too, which is, needless to say, a lot more important than the state of my lawn.

I picked up a book called Savage Spawn, by Jonathan Kellerman, the mystery writer. I’ve already told you how much I enjoy his novels, so I was interested to check out this book, which is not fiction but a book of popular psychology about children who become cold-blooded criminals.

I’ll probably say more about his conclusions tomorrow, but today I want to quote a passage that impressed me:

Psychiatrist Thomas Millar, in an eloquent essay titled “The Age of Passion Man,” written nearly two decades ago, decried the tendency of contemporary Western society to glamorize hedonism and antisocial behavior, and to confuse psychopathy, which he regards as a form of malignant childishness, with heroism….

Confusing creativity with morality and psychopathic rebelliousness with social liberation led Norman Mailer to predict that psychopaths would turn out to be the saviors of society. Mailer was as terribly wrong about that as he was when he worked hard to spring career criminal Jack Henry Abbott from prison. Shortly after his release, Abbott murdered an innocent man. Oops. What impressed Mailer were Abbott’s writings, summarized in a thin book titled In the Belly of the Beast. A coolheaded review of this volume nearly two decades later reveals it to be a crude, nasty, sophomoric collection of self-justifying diatribes—prototypical psychopathy.

Muddled thinking about evil is by no means limited to the political left. Sex murderer Herbert Smith, sentenced to execution for raping and bludgeoning a fifteen-year-old girl to death with a baseball bat, was able to turn a phrase with some skill, and he conned William Buckley into thinking he was innocent. Buckley campaigned to get Smith out of prison, finally succeeding in 1971, whereupon Smith promptly and viciously attacked another woman. Smith then admitted that he’d been guilty of the first murder. Oops again.

Kellerman identifies here what I consider a major problem in our culture today. Beginning in the days of the Romantic Movement, we began to see the titanic, rebellious, Promethean social rebel (like Shelley or Byron) as the hero, the one who would free us all from Rousseau’s chains, who would liberate us all to become the gods and goddesses we were born to be. The parallel Romantic current, the more Christian and conventionally moral Romanticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge, found few followers. That strain was less sexy. It lacked the sweetness of forbidden fruit, and was much harder work.

Thus we came to believe, first of all, that great, creative souls must always reject conventional morality. Further down the slope we came to believe that whatever was socially transgressive must by definition be a work of genius.

This has given people with artistic pretensions a wonderful excuse to live lives of selfishness and self-destruction.

It has also been responsible for a whole lot of lousy art.

Mencken on Dull Writers and William J. Bryan

With the Scopes Trial Reenactment coming this weekend in Dayton, TN, I am reposted a bit I wrote back on October 24, 2004.

H.L. Mencken biographer and terrific New York drama/music/etc. critic Terry Teachout recently learned of a piece Mencken wrote for Vanity Fair in 1923 in response to a question about boring writers. The famous critical thinker (1880-1956) listed ten authors with a few additional thoughts: “Dostoevski, for some reason that I don’t know, simply stumps me; I have never been able to get through any of his novels. George Eliot I started to read too young, and got thereby a taste against her that is unsound but incurable. Against Cooper and Browning I was prejudiced by school-masters who admired them. As for Lawrence and Miss Stein, what makes them hard reading for me is simply the ineradicable conviction that beneath all their pompous manner there is nothing but tosh.”

Speaking of Terry’s biography, I saw it in an interesting rare book and memorabilia collection at my alma mater, Bryan College. Bryan is named for William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), an orator for progressive politics and Biblical principles as well as a former candidate for presidency and the secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. Bryan’s name is known to many as the man who argued against Clarence Darrow in the trial of John Scopes. The Scopes Trial drew a lot of media attention by design; the men behind the lawsuit, the ones who recruited Scopes to take blame for teaching evolution in public school, hoped to make a name for themselves and business for the area. Publicity encouraged Bryan threw his hat into the ring for the prosecution’s side which spurred Mencken to urge Darrow to join the defense. Mencken said, “Nobody gives a damn about that yap schoolteacher. The thing to do is to make a fool out of Bryan.”

The trial did not accomplish the planners objectives. It became a media event beyond their control. Darrow did put Bryan to an interrogation on the stand in an effort to make a fool out of him, and he cheated him out of a final address, in which Bryan planned to make his rebuttal. If you want to know what really happened there, forget about Inherit the Wind. Start here.

Bryan College wants to collect Bryan’s personal books and those about him, so they have worked toward that goal. A couple years ago they were offered even more–a large Mencken collection through a friendly association with a member of the H.L. Mencken Society. Representatives of the society came south to view an annual reenactment of the Scopes Trial in Dayton, TN. One of the members struck up a friendship with one of my English professors which eventually resulted in the generous donations of Mencken-related books and many copies of American Mercury, a journal he published. Today, Bryan’s library houses a unique and ironic collection of Bryan and Mencken material, side by side. With Terry’s book on the right side toward the back of the room.

Adrian’s Recommended Reading

England’s uber-blogger Adrian Warnock has a list of books which he believes every Christian should read:

  1. ESV Bible
  2. God is the Gospel by John Piper
  3. Humility – True Greatness by C.J.Mahaney
  4. Living the Cross-Centered Life by C.J.Mahaney
  5. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood
  6. Spurgeon’s Sermons
  7. Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem
  8. C.H.Spurgeon, The Soulwinner
  9. What is Reformed Theology?

The list is certainly weighted toward certain authors, but the books look to be contenders for required reading. What do you think?

Please pray for Adrian’s health and that the Lord would give him grace to perservere through his sickness. He has shingles.