The Thrill of Orthodoxy: A Review

It was a book I was eager to read. As a professor of Great Books who earnestly believes in the value of historical Christianity, I expected to find in this argument an exploration of the creeds, a survey and denunciation of the heresies, the various confessional movements, and the dangers of our modern divergence from the faith. Each of these elements were touched upon in Trevin Wax’s The Thrill of Orthodoxy (InterVarsity Press, 2022), which successfully reinforced my confidence in that faith. But my experience of reading the book was, sadly, less than thrilling.

The modern Christian—especially the Christian long-churched—struggles to find novelty in ancient words. Growing up going to Sunday School means memorizing not only the old text but the old language. The language that isn’t holy writ but has been repeated so many times that it holds the enchantment of the sacristy in the minds of its parishioners. As in a familiar marriage, it can be difficult to believe passionately in the good of fidelity when temptations are found on every digital street corner.

The problem, Wax rightly discerns, is that we are easily distracted by the world’s allurements while hungering for something spiritually rich. If we cannot find satisfaction in recitations of the creeds, we will find titillation in sensational philosophies and syncretism. Spiritualist cults often offer something more intriguing than orthodox religion. Like the modernist, they blend belief in God with the promise of power, marketing the illusion of social acceptance plus the freedom of individual irresponsibility. To stay within the fence lines, trotting along grasslands well-worn, can bring a banality to a heart seeking what lies in the forest beyond home.

But Christians digging deeper into scripture, listening to the voice of the Spirit, longing for transformation, desiring communion with God will discover new treasures as well as old (Matt. 13:51-52). Those seeking the kingdom of heaven with sincerity and hard effort will find connections between scriptures, depth in theology, and results in practice. What is orthodox is not exciting or adventurous in the way the author describes, but it is stable foundation on which to build a home.

For this reason, I struggled throughout the book to connect with the repetitive characterization of orthodoxy as “an adventure.” This wording, and others like it (“thrill,” “exciting,” etc.) betrays a fear that the subject is anything but. As soon as the professor has to ask if the students are having fun, he knows they are not. This is because, by his own tacit admission, orthodoxy is not fun in the religious sense. It could be pictured as a journey. But it is better described, for what my opinion is worth, as a cathedral, a multi-generational project where believers use their talents to construct a kingdom worthy of the King upon his glorious return. The cathedral is awe-inspiring, working wonder and prompting worship; but it is not sensational like riding a roller coaster or joining a role-playing game.

This problem is not merely rhetorical. Even without the repetitive language, the argument lacks a compelling narrative. To his credit, Wax attempts many of the objectives I would have set for the book. He lays out his definition of orthodoxy, as represented by historical Christianity and the major creeds, distinguishing them from the various confessions of major denominations. He discusses ancient heresies like Donatism and Arianism. He discusses modern heresies like sectarianism and sexual ideology. It does touch on some of the stories of the faith, but all too briefly. It does mention some significant heresies, but not in ways that either contextualize their appearance nor explain their application to contemporary Christianity. More heresies should be reviewed, and more resolutions should be presented, if the reader is going to understand why a biblically based, historically informed Christianity is more meaningful than its ancient and modern divergences.

Far be it from me to cast too dark a pallor on the book. Wax makes many important points that turned my head. He is correct that heresy makes faith narrow-minded while claiming the opposite, and that orthodoxy, on the other hand, is expansive. He is correct that progressives are too inclusive to the point of blurring the definition of faithful obedience, while sectarians are so exclusive as to destroy fellowship with nearly anyone who disagrees with them. He gives thoughtful warnings that “We should be wary of anyone who advocates new teachings or new practices that Christians in other parts of the world would fail to recognize or that church leaders throughout history would find surprising.” When we find ourselves frustrated with church teaching, we should remember that “We are always tempted to challenge the constraints of orthodoxy at the pressure points where we most need those constraints.”

But Wax chooses for his text a popular audience of the unconverted and the disenchanted. I believe, however, his audience is the choir. Few modernist Christians already conforming to today’s sexual ideology would likely pick up the book and change their minds to embrace historical Christianity. Few traditionalist Christians are likely to be convinced by the author’s frequent reminder that orthodoxy is fun.

That being said, especially to the novice, The Thrill of Orthodoxy can be a useful introduction to historical Christianity. I would recommend even more the references in the back of the book that would deepen the reader’s exploration of the faith. G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is a remarkable text for seeing catholic universalism in a new and whimsical light. And, of course, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity has for several generations brought a philosophical approach to faith that has enchanted many believers. Wax’s contributions to this discussion are not unfruitful, as he reminds us that orthodoxy is more fulfilling than any other gnostic gospel we might try to live.

My Kingdom for a Metaphor!

I love my work. It is a rare profession to be able to discuss history, literature, art and philosophy all in one setting. Synthesizing the great ideas of the West is like looking at the entire world from the height of an airplane through the lens of a microscope. 30,000 feet at 300x magnification. Everything and everywhere all at once.

But it can also be unsettling—certainly for the students, but also for me. I often feel caught between the moon and New York City. I don’t always have the answers, and I, too, am often confused. But, as we tell the students, taking our cues from Socrates, confusion is a good place to begin—for it prompts us toward discovery.

One of the areas in which students struggle is in transposing philosophy and literature. It is not that they do not grasp the differences in genres—as they almost invariably prefer the latter to the former. It is that they do not always know how the metaphors of literature are understood in the descriptive analysis of philosophy.

In fairness, these modes are frequently at one in their aims if often opposed in their means. As Kierkegaard notes, the outer, physical world feels chaotic and unjust—and it often is—while the world of the spirit conforms to immutable, divine laws. “He who shall not work shall not eat” is an immutable law of the spirit, to which we would readily assent, for all must labor and cultivate their own gardens. But reality shows that sometimes the unjust do not truly work for their bread, and yet their bellies are glutted and their tongues saturated. In the stories, the good nearly always succeed, while the wicked are put down—and the world is restored to heavenly order once again. Aladdin, in choosing integrity and aiming at personal wholeness, achieves both wholeness and riches. But to choose integrity in the outer world often comes with the price tag of significant loss and suffering.

Such is the dilemma Bobby presented in class. In our discussion of Summa Theologica, Bobby wrestled with the concept, like St. Thomas Aquinas before him, of the objective world being understood by the subjective subject. How can reality ever be understood if we see things solely through our individual experience? The existentialist throws his hands into the air and proclaims that such a feat is impossible, for, he incorrectly reasons, existence must precede essence. Or, in other words, life or self-hood must come before understanding or consciousness. Humanity has no fundamental value—no established essence or nature—so we have the freedom to create our nature. Subjectivity matters more than objective fact.

To help himself out, Bobby turned to the Ugly Duckling. For the aesthetically-unpleasing fowl was not vulgar by nature, only in comparison to his more uniformly attractive siblings. He was taught he was ugly only because he was in the wrong flock. Reason, Bobby explained, could not address every human concern because we cannot apply it to all things—as, for example, matters of faith.

I applauded dear Bobby for his efforts, but in this case, it was the metaphor applied to the wrong thing. The very purpose of the Thomistic project was the synthesis of reason and faith, so that where reason can rationally demonstrate the existence of God yet cannot prove the nature of the Trinity, it can be supported by faith; and where faith cannot explain the effect of physics on my six-year-old’s ability to get a pill stuck in his sinus cavity, reason can. But then again, perhaps there are things never to be understood. The Ugly Duckling does not show the triumph of subjectivity but the necessity of objectivity—the need to rise out of one’s own immediate experience and to see the world as it rightly is.

The existentialist will once again raise his probing finger to claim we cannot know how the world rightly is. It is a problem as old as Plato, and even older when we see the Hebrew God do battle against his Egyptian challengers. The objective, measured testing of scientific hypotheses and religious truth claims are more or less one and the same. As Lewis explains in Mere Christianity, we have only to measure Christian morality to Nazi morality to know that one is far preferable to another. One is consonant with reality and the moral good, while the other wilts beneath the blazing heat of its truth.

What happens when the metaphor becomes a fixed prism through which to view reality? After all, surely Richard would not have relinquished his entire kingdom for a mere horse—for the horse would be the means by which he would attempt to reclaim the kingdom. The nature of metaphors is the power of analogy, to see in one thing but for a moment that this is the same as that. Yet if young readers cannot see past the story, they are apt to think that the story always ends happily ever after. That the Bachelorette always finds her man becomes as insoluble a truth as the Christ always rises from the tomb. The meaning, rather than clarified through metaphor, becomes lost in its details. The declarations of reason shatter in the beautiful depictions of poetry. The particular individual becomes everything while the universal becomes nothing.

I am happy to say that I think we walked Bobby through his angst and came out on the other side like Dante washing the angelic marks from his brow. And this is what learning in community should do for us—to tackle a big shelf topic together, to build consensus, and to discover truth.

The Fellowship: A Review

Readers of these pages will not at all be surprised to find a whole post devoted to the Inklings, the Oxford School of writers and thinkers joined by their mutual love of the mythopoeic and their mutual love of Christ. Indeed, it may be that virtually the whole foundation of the modern Christian literary experience is founded entirely on these trailblazers. But I am told that this was no school as such, highlighted by C.S. Lewis’ own words toward the end of his life. It was, rather, merely an informal group of friends joining together in a real and mystical fellowship, encouraging each other in their efforts to live out faith through art. Philip and Carol Zaleski explore the four pillars of this remarkable gathering—C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield—in their book The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).

Nearly all of our contemporaries are familiar with Lewis and Tolkien. The average reader may not know of Lewis’ apologetic works, but they have at least heard of how to get to a secret world through a wardrobe. The non-reader may have never picked up The Lord of the Rings at Barnes & Noble, but they have certainly seen Peter Jackson’s depiction of Middle Earth. Fifty years and more after their deaths, Lewis and Tolkien have achieved the rare “cross-over” status—like Taylor Swift but with far more depth and artistry. Yet fewer readers are familiar with the contributions of Charles Williams and Owen Barfield. For those needing an introduction to these authors, I might recommend Williams’ fiction, Descent into Hell and War in Heaven, and Barfield’s linguistic criticism, Poetic Diction. (Williams’ The Figure of Beatrice and Barfield’s What Coleridge Knew are occupying restless space in my queue.) In their time, each of these authors contributed a prolific body of work to imaginative fiction, literary criticism, and the cultivation of a Christian mythos. The Zaleskis capture with incredible historical clarity and fine storytelling the biography of each of the four Inklings, and not a few details of several of the secondary figures.

Time does not permit to discuss the various biographical elements of each Inkling here. So I’ll state that the most exciting aspect of this book for me was its ability to capture the zeitgeist of early twentieth century Oxford. There remains, in my mind at least, a romanticized picture of the British Academy in the 1920s and ‘30s. With their descriptions of social functions, tutoring and lecturing, and even an occasional committee assignment, the Zaleskis have only increased my idealism for this period as I imagine what it must have been like to work alongside these giants. Yet the authors also remind us of what is often forgotten in reading The Abolition of Man or Farmer Giles of Ham—namely, that these men were fighting against the worst excesses of Modernism. They were not writing bestsellers, at least initially, because they seemed like antiquaries, relics of a forgotten age, shelves in a library which no one visits except as a curiosity. History seems a foregone conclusion only for subsequent generations.

Time soon proved the Inklings right, as readers then and now hunger for the vitality of the past and the music of mythopoetry, but detractors—and there were many, including I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, and T.S. Eliot—are often unremembered, and few beloved. The Modernist lust for novelty and disgust of tradition had so pervasively infiltrated culture that its innovations instantly became assumptions. Most Westerners today even are so narrowly focused—ironically, while claiming a global view—and guilty of chronological snobbery—ironically, while claiming to understand the injustices of history—that they cannot articulate their own Modernist worldview. Lewis especially was able to identify the various supports to the Modernist foundation and carefully demolish them through reason and argument. Tolkien, for his part, offered an alternative vision that gave readers the freedom to appreciate traditionalism, history, and a more comprehensive view of nature and the supernatural. Williams deepened the role of the spirit in the visible world, often uncomfortably so for many Christians, and Barfield cast a vision of Western literature returning Christ to Christendom.

This book is more than just a paean, however, and many readers will be disappointed to learn that their idols were, after all, men. Lewis’ bizarre relationship with an older woman, Tolkien’s petty insecurity and cantankerousness, Williams’ unhealthy fascination with the occult, and Barfield’s new age anthroposophy, all run counter to their mythic status as great men of faith. Yet when we study intimately the heroic lives of the past, we must be prepared to accept what we uncover, which may be a disrobing of imagined glory and a painful recognition of their profligacy. This is a good rather than an ill, I believe, for it reminds us that the truest saints are the worst of sinners. Indeed, because they are all too human we can admire them even more. We, too, can achieve what they did because we share a common wretchedness—and a common grace.

But at its heart, this is a story of friendship, of how great men encouraged other men in their greatness, of the sacred bonds of those who share vision and talent. Friendship, as Lewis tells us in The Four Loves, is the least needful of all affections. Yet it can be the most powerful because it, like agape, is willed, and like eros, unwilled. We all need friends like these—to encourage us, to rebuke us, to believe in us. Good things grow in a spirit of peace and amity.

So if you find yourself wondering about the story behind The Problem of Pain or guessing why Tolkien never completed The Silmarillion, or—more importantly—if want to know the bonds of brotherhood that depict full living at its finest, then I heartily recommend The Fellowship.