I love it when things remind me of Chesterton and I have an excuse to dive back into Orthodoxy. I never finish it–I almost don’t want to. I read a chapter here, and a chapter there, and months from now I’ll probably read the same chapters and be pleasantly surprised by something I never caught before. That’s either evidence of a gloriously insightful author, or of early onset memory loss in myself. Hey there, Grandma Jo.
What reminded me this time was reading If You Can Keep It, by Eric Metaxas. It was the first book on my summer reading list, and I sped read the second half of it yesterday in one sitting. Not that it was the most well-written book I’d ever read, but I’d resolved to finish what I started so I could get on to something else. I don’t have any business critiquing Metaxas’ writing style, given my own rambling tendencies, so I’ll just mention his frequent insertion of unrelated, sort-of-but-not-really rhetorical questions at the ends of paragraphs. That, and some repetition I didn’t think he needed. All I’m saying is he’s not Chesterton. Which he never claimed to be.
He did quote Chesterton, however, about halfway through the book, which is probably why I stuck it out. Actually, once I decided it was an okay book, it really was pretty good. His main idea, I gather, is that we as an American people have forgotten both the heritage of our country and our resulting responsibility, given our unique beginning.
Early on, he clarifies his view of America’s exceptionalism:
Our exceptionalness is not for us but for others. That is the paradox at the heart of who we are. So what makes us different has nothing to do with jingoism and nationalistic chest beating. If we have ever been great, it is only because we have been good. If we have ever been great, it is only because we have longed to help make others great too (Metaxas 25).
In other words, Metaxas goes deeper than simply yelling “Merica” and slamming the book shut, his point made. He presents a thoughtful and compelling account of how and why the country was founded, acknowledging what he sees as the three key ingredients in America’s success while admitting that there is plenty of room for failure. These three elements are freedom, virtue, and faith, each of which requires the other to exist in any meaningful form. He cites example after example of early American thinkers who hoped to cultivate a citizenry marked by these elements, including Washington, Franklin, and Tocqueville (who, though not an American thinker, was certainly a thinker about America).
Metaxas discusses other figures in America’s early history who helped to make the country not only great, but good: George Whitefield, Nathan Hale, George Washington, and Paul Revere, to name a few. For centuries, these and other American heroes were venerated and taught to schoolchildren; now, however, the excellent things such individuals achieved are dismissed the moment anything can be discovered to discredit them. While it wouldn’t be healthy for a country to hold up its leaders as perfect examples with no faults at all, Metaxas is concerned that we are erasing our heroes and, consequently, our heritage without instilling in the next generation such good virtues of bravery, honor, and integrity.
After quoting a section from one of George Washington’s speeches to his military officers, Metaxas notes the difference in his choice of words from anything one would hear today:
…More important is [Washington’s] use of specific words and phrases like “reputation,” “patient virtue,” “dignity,” “glory,” and “sacred honor.”
These words and phrases are most striking to us in that they have disappeared, generally speaking, and not just as words but as concepts. Who speaks of “sacred honor” or “glory” today? These words and ideas have been quietly banished from our cultural conversation. Nor is it that we have replaced these terms with less antiquated equivalents. We’ve lost them altogether. The question is whether we can ever recover them, and whether, short of that, we can survive. Can it be that the further we have strayed from thinking of such things, the further we have strayed from what is necessary for the ordered liberty bequeathed to us by the founders? And that in neglecting the cultivation of these virtues have we unwittingly undermined our entire way of life? (165, emphasis added)
It’s a troubling thought to me–that perhaps not only our vocabulary has changed, but that we’ve dismissed as too old-fashioned some virtues that turn out to be essential to keeping a republic both good and great.
After reading If You Can Keep It, I’m thinking of a couple of things-–how I have not done well with informing myself of my responsibility as a U.S. citizen; how there’s so much of my American heritage (both good and bad) that I don’t know, and haven’t cared to learn; how I have not loved my country very well.
That, finally, is what Metaxas leaves with his readers–the necessity of loving something in order to make it better. It’s what reminds me of Chesterton and Lewis and other writers who have resonated with me–that, although my being a member of American society isn’t my ultimate identity (by any means), it’s such a society in which any change I want to see requires my active engagement with whatever it is I think needs to be changed.
Again, this isn’t a “my country, right or wrong” attitude, exactly–Metaxas puts it this way:
…we can say that to love someone is not to avoid seeing their flaws, but to avoid so focusing on them that the person gets a feeling of hopelessness about changing them.
Those who have adopted an “America is the problem” attitude, who have characterized America as an imperialistic “world bully,” are simply wrong. They are no different from those who would say America has no flaws and can do no wrong. Both are fundamental misunderstandings of what it it means to love one’s country and to be a good citizen who is helping lead one’s nation in the right direction. (233)
The way Chesterton puts it is, well, more eloquent than I can properly summarize–if you really want a wordsmith, go and read the chapter “The Flag of the World” from Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton and then find me and we can revel in having read such things. But, to give a short glimpse of the connection between the two writers, here is Chesterton talking about the need for a love and loyalty toward something in order to make it worth anyone’s while:
…what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.
No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it? (320-321)
Chesterton may not have been talking about America, but I think his ideas apply here, especially to Christians who are wondering where, if anywhere, their convictions as Christians and their responsibilities as voting citizens overlap. I’m not sure I can answer that question for anyone except myself, but what I’m thinking increasingly is that it’s not enough to keep quiet when you’ve been given a voice, even if it’s only a small voice. If you can whisper, you can speak on someone else’s behalf.
True that one oughtn’t to accept blindly all that America has stood for in the past–some evils need to be remembered so that they aren’t repeated. There are quite a number of social ills, past and present, for which we as a nation ought to repent. It’s also true that, as of 2017, there can still be public conversations about what direction is best and which values or virtues we ought to cultivate.
To quote Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
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