Listening In: Tony Esolen

WARREN SMITH, HOST: Tony, welcome to the program. It’s great to be with you here at the Touchstone Conference. You spoke last night. Tell us in summary, what you told the group.

ANTHONY ESOLEN, GUEST: Oh, well, I told them that Christians in our time, rather than bemoaning the fact that everything is in ruins around us—which is, of course, the case—need to begin to build, always build. Build because, well, because we’re called to. That’s part of our commission. Also, I told them to try to understand the spiritual state of the people that we would be ministering to, and I tried to describe how contemporary man is very different from previous human beings that missionaries might’ve gone out to see, to evangelize. If the saint Boniface goes out to Germany to evangelize the pagan Germans, he’s going out and he’s meeting a real culture. It’s a pagan culture, but it’s vibrant. The people of the culture have their feasts, their gods, their songs, their heroes, songs that would have been passed down over the course of hundreds of years, literally hundreds of years even though they had no reading and no writing. They had poetry, they had music, they had song, they had traditions, right? They were not alienated. And my point, one of my points last night was that contemporary man around us—even we ourselves to some extent—contemporary man is alienated. He’s alienated from the past because he has no cultural roots anymore. He’s been taught to despise the past. He’s alienated from a real vibrant society. I would say social ties are thin and few. That shows up in his sexual habits, which seem to have no meaning beyond the pleasure or the despair of the moment. And he has very little connection with the natural world, with the outside world. A lot of people out there are intensely lonely. And this sort of thing is new for Christian evangelists. This is not normal. This is not pagan—doesn’t even rise to the level of paganism. It’s alienation. So I tried to describe both what the alienation looks like and what to bring to man who has been alienated.

SMITH: So, when you say it’s new and that it is not even a characteristic of pagan culture and that is because that even a pagan culture had some semblance of community, had some semblance of tribalism. Is that fair?

ESOLEN: Well, they all had communities, right? And wherever you go among human beings, you have culture in the proper sense of the word. That is, people think that these are sacred things. We’ve gotten them from our parents who got them from theirs going way back and we pass them along faithfully to our children and we cherish them. That includes feasts, celebrations for the gods. It includes song, poetry. That’s a universal human art. But you go among the Eskimos, you may not find them sculpting things—they do wood carvings, but that sort of art, the material for it is largely lacking. But you have poetry, you have song, or you used to anyway. That is universal among human beings, except for us. We’re the outliers. And we’re the outliers in many ways. A kid growing up on the coast of Greenland 200 years ago, that is not alienated. He’s got a family, he’s got a village. They’ve got habits that have been passed along for many generations. They have song. They have celebrations. Whether they were Eskimo pagan or by that time Lutheran Christian. There’s no alienation there. It’s a difficult life, but it’s not an alienated life. We have alienation now. And we in part, all of us, have been at least partially alienated from our rich cultural traditions, right? So we have to deal with ourselves. But at the same time, we’re trying to meet people who are lacking some fundamental human things.

SMITH: Well, Ross Douthat also last night—one of the other speakers—said that that pathology that you described also though does create opportunities for Christians because we have these things. We have a patrimony. We have community, at least if we don’t squander it ourselves. And it sounds to me like what you’re saying is, yes, we have these things that we can give. It can be a gift to the world, but we’ve also got to take care that we don’t squander them ourselves. That we even, we are in danger of losing these things. 

ESOLEN: We can never underestimate to what degree we ourselves have been alienated. Right? And I’m talking about the human patrimony and also about the specifically Christian patrimony, right? We are Christian speakers of English. English is our native tongue. How many of us know the poetry of George Herbert? Right? I said last night I believe that George Herbert was the greatest lyric poet in English. It’s very, very high praise. Among people who know his poetry, it would not be an outlandish claim. You can make a very strong case for it. They would nod and say, yeah, yeah, you’re very possibly correct. Why is it that Christians do not know this? Because something that was very precious that had been passed down, especially among Anglicans and evangelicals, Methodists in 19th century, it was not passed down. Our modern education has thrown out most of that stuff. And so now we have Christians with all good and will in the world, but they too have treasures or should have treasures—they’re in the attic someplace. They’re gathering mold and dust. They haven’t been taken out. So we’ve got these things, but we don’t even know that we have them.

SMITH: Well that, that’s right. I mean, in fact, when I hear you say that, it’s like you really can’t blame the public school system on not, you know, on the fact that the church doesn’t know George Herbert because we could be singing George Herbert set to music in our churches today if we only chose to do so. 

ESOLEN: Right. Now, the public schools are to blame because they were charged with that patrimony or a large part of it and they have thrown it away. They began to throw it away as early as around 1930 because that’s about when John Dewey really altered the state of American education.

SMITH: Well, yeah. I didn’t mean to suggest that the public schools don’t play an important role. I’m just simply saying that we don’t have to throw George Herbert away just because the public schools have thrown it away. We can recover that for ourselves. 

ESOLEN: And John Milton and William Shakespeare and Dante and so forth. 

SMITH: Well, in fact, you said something last night, Tony, that I want you to say more about because you are a professor by vocation and sort of craft. You’re a professor of literature. And even though you make these really brilliant and trenchant observations about the culture, you said something last night that I want you to say more about it. And that is that when you mention, you know, Milton and you mentioned Shakespeare and you’ve mentioned Charles Dickens, for example. You said that before 1900, virtually the entire English language cannon would have been an ally to the Christian worldview. Say more about that.

ESOLEN: Oh, well, since you bring up Charles Dickens, let’s take Charles Dickens, for example. Dickens, his theology might’ve been a bit of a muddle. I don’t know whether he believed in the co-eternal sonship of Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity. He did call Jesus our savior, and he did mean it. And in his novels, I don’t think he takes two steps without thinking of the gospels. He’s always thinking of the gospels. A friend of mine where I used to teach said to me about Dickens that Dickens was in love with goodness. That’s I think a very trenchant observation. He was. I’ll give you an example of a story that everybody thinks they know, right? But perhaps they don’t really know which is a Christmas Carol. Okay. I’ve heard people say that the Christmas Carol is a, you know, sort of secular, right? Scrooge learns to be a decent human being after all. A Christmas Carol is steeped in scripture. This you get when you actually read it. 

SMITH: When you say, “which you get when you actually read it,” as opposed to watching on television, as opposed to look at some movie version of it, but actually read Dickens’ words.

ESOLEN: Yeah. It’s not that long. Yeah. Read it. When you read it, you find the Scrooge is being led by the ghost of Christmas yet to come. And he has begged the ghost to let him see some tenderness associated with a death. And the specter leads him into the Cratchit household where there is a crutch and a brace—an iron brace—and a stool kept lovingly in a corner. But of course, no tiny Tim that they once belonged to. When Scrooge and the specter first enter that room, one of the boys, Peter Cratchit, is reading to his two younger siblings, and these are the words he reads: “And he took a little child and set him in their midst.” All that Dickens needed to do was give you that line. He would expect that everybody reading him would have known what that situation is because they were quarrelling over who would have been greatest in the kingdom of God. And Jesus took a little child and he set him in their midst and he said, “Unless you become as one of these little ones, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.” 

And it’s tremendously powerful because Dickens didn’t have to say any more than that. Now, and when Scrooge—and the process had been building up in him over the visions that he’s had—when Scrooge wakes up the next morning, he doesn’t know what day it is at all. He thinks that three nights have passed. He says he’s overjoyed to find that he’s still alive and he’s changed his mind. He’s going to be different now. He says, I don’t know what it is, what day it is. I don’t know anything at all. I am quite a baby. Boom. 

SMITH: Direct echo of that earlier idea. Yeah. 

ESOLEN: Scrooge has been born again, right? He is quite a baby.

SMITH: Well, when you describe it that way, I mean, first of all, A Christmas Carol, I’ll never read it the same way again. Number two, a couple of things though come to mind. One is that Dickens was speaking in a kind of code that he could count on his audience to understand. And that’s not always the, I mean, like you say, we don’t take that meaning away from Dickens anymore because we have lost the facility to crack that code to understand that language.

ESOLEN: It’s interesting because you can tell a lot from what authors understood that they did not have to say to their readers.

SMITH: Right, right. What could be assumed as a common view of the world. 

ESOLEN: However, now we as Christians, we should make ourselves familiar with the word of God so that when we read Charles Dickens, these things are second nature to us, right? The watchword at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities is “recalled to life,” right? Recalled to life. That’s the password. Tale of Two Cities begins in kind of a dangerous setting. The watchword by the end of A Tale of Two Cities is “I am the resurrection and the life, sayeth the Lord.” I’ll tell you something that’s interesting to me. When Hollywood produced A Tale of Two Cities, Ronald Colman as the hero Sydney Carton who gives his life for his friend takes his place in the French prison to be guillotined the next day for the love of a good woman. The director knew that he couldn’t have—he had to get that verse in there. But he couldn’t have Ronald Colman say it without perhaps maybe seeming overdramatic. So, in the scene where Coleman—Sydney Carton—is clearly thinking about the plan to get Charles Darnay out of the prison, and that would have to be, he’d have to chloroform him to do it because he would never agree to let the man take his place. While he’s thinking this and this is the last resort, on the mantlepiece behind him is a plaque and the plaque reads, “I am the resurrection and the life, sayeth the Lord.” We see it in the background. Nobody needs to utter the words. And the very last thing that is seen in the movie—there’s a blank screen and the words now written out in script, “I am the resurrection and the life, sayeth the Lord.” The whole book is about resurrection.

SMITH: So there’s Dickens and so stipulate for the record, everybody listening, go read Dickens, I guess, is part of the moral of that story. 

ESOLEN: Everybody go familiarize yourselves with the poems of Tennyson and Browning. They thought of themselves as Christians. George Elliot lost her Christian faith, but she didn’t lose her Christian morality. That was important to her. Read Silas Marner by George Elliot. The great Russian authors, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I mean, Tolstoy was a bit of a basket case theologically, but I mean, you don’t get any of these novels without the Christian faith. They’re all on our side. 

SMITH: But today, obviously, very different from that. So what do we do? We were talking last night, you guys were talking last night with you and Ross Douthat and Rod Dreyer spent a lot of time talking about Dante. And I thought of the opening line of The Divine Comedy that I’m going to butcher a little bit here, but you know midway this life having quite lost my way…

ESOLEN: In the middle of the journey of our life… 

SMITH: Yeah. I came to myself in the midst of a dark wood. So, in some ways we are like the Pilgrim in Dante’s Divine Comedy. We have quite lost our way. We are well past, well, we don’t know whether we’re at the mid-point or not, but we’re at some point and we’re certainly not at the beginning point. What do we do? What’s our way forward? Who’s our Beatrice?

ESOLEN: Well, the first thing to do is to wake up. Dante suggests that the sin that led him into that wilderness was what we somewhat inaccurately called sloth. The Latin term is acedia. It’s a spiritual sloth, a spiritual sluggishness, an inability to take joy in the things that should really bring us joy. Sleepwalking spiritually. He says how I first came there, I cannot tell. I was so full of sleep. Just at that point when I first left the way of truth behind. I was full of sleep. And we have been full of sleep—not the sleep that refreshes, not the sleep that gives us dreams sent by God. A kind of waking sleep, which you sort of stumble on. Our spiritual lives are characterized by this. Josef Pieper, the great Catholic philosopher, said that sloth is the defining sin of modern man. And modern man, of course, would say how could it be? Simply because I work, work, work, work, work, work, work and Pieper said yes, yes, exactly. Precisely. That’s where we see it most—a society of total work where you do not even know what it’s like anymore to celebrate a feast. You define yourself by what you do, not by what you are, and you define yourself by what you can make and not by what you have been given, especially by God, given by God. The commandment—and I read that book and it changed my life because I had never really considered how important the commandment is: Remember the Sabbath to keep it Holy. That is like God commanding us to go outside and get fresh air because it’s good for our bodies. To keep the Sabbath is good for us. God doesn’t need our praise. We need the praise. The creature becomes most like his creator in praise and gratitude, but we spiritually are sleepwalkers. And culturally I think it’s worse than that. Culturally, we are comatose. And we need to be roused. I don’t think this action can come from us. It’s got to be by the grace of God. But I think God is giving us the grace if we respond to it.

SMITH: Well, let me pivot in our conversation, Tony, and ask you about that a little bit. Because I read your—I think someone could listen to our conversation up until now and think, man, Tony Esolen, it’s pretty pessimistic. I mean, it’s kind of a downer. And I read your book Out of the Ashes and, you know, it was tough. It was a tough book. Some people called it curmudgeonly. And I don’t know how you would take that criticism, but I also though, having heard you speak last night, having had some interactions with you this weekend, I don’t view you as a pessimist.

ESOLEN: No, no, no. It’s pessimism and optimism are actually kind of beside the point. We have hope. That’s not optimism. We have hope and we have confidence in God. And also we try to understand what it is that God has given us to do within this time. The temptation, of course, is always to curse the time. But John Henry Newman says, you must not do that. That’s sin against divine providence. God has put us here precisely at this time to be the kinds of people we need to be.

SMITH: Yeah. Acts 17 God prescribed the boundaries of our dwelling place and the time that we were appointed to live.

ESOLEN: Here we are. So, here we are. So, in Out of the Ashes and other works that I’ve written, I try to take very frank stock of what the situation is. I don’t ever put icing on that situation. The situation is probably worse than what I have described. 

SMITH: Yeah, as a friend of mine said, “Cheer up. It’s worse than you think.”

ESOLEN: That’s right. I try to notice—I tell people 90% of what I do is to notice what’s right in front of my face. I’m stubborn this way, I cannot be talked out of noticing what is right there to see. I see it. I talk about it. I reveal it. But that’s not enough. The next step always is, okay, okay boys, the city has been bombed out. Everything is rubble. You don’t have sewers anymore. They backed up into the streets. The food is running low, and what little you have is dirty. Lot of the roofs have been busted. It’s gonna rain. Your kids are dirty. What do we do? In that situation, what do you do? Well, you don’t sit back and say, Oh my gosh, the task is so enormous. No. Nobody can do everything. Nobody can even do most of the things, but everybody can do something. Here’s a shovel. Shovel out the rubble. The sewer’s backed up, go unblock it. You know, I think the kids are running around. The kids are hungry. Go feed the kids, right? All these things have to be done. So, it means that everything is an opportunity, right? So we have people who are completely ignorant of, let’s say, the heritage of real Christian music with real poems. Not slop. Not sentimental effusions, but real stuff. Okay? You know what? It wouldn’t take more than a few weeks to introduce your congregation to real music. You don’t even have to have an expert organist. That may come down the road someday. Everybody has a voice. Everybody has a voice. Everybody can sing, right? You can start with your kids to read good books. Nobody stopping you. And good books have never been cheaper to obtain. Right? The public schools are toxic waste dumps. Well, get your kids out of there. You can start. I don’t know where to begin. You don’t have to know where to begin. All you have to know is begin. Just begin. The task is immense. Okay, that’s fine. That means that anything you do will be an improvement. I said, well, what do you know? What books do you read? Well, you know what, there are great, great, great books for kids or books for grown-ups that kids can appreciate also. They’re out there. You can get them three for a dollar probably at the flea market. Get them, read them, read them to the kids. You know, you might like the Anne of Green Gables series. You got girls in your family. Read them. The Little House on the Prairie series is wholesome and healthy. Read them. The Chronicles of Narnia. Read that. 

SMITH: You don’t need anyone’s permission. 

ESOLEN: You don’t need anyone’s permission and they are not expensive to get.

SMITH: Well, which takes us back to the beginning, Tony. You know, you said that what you told the group here was build, build, build, build. That sounds like what you’re saying here at the end as well. 

ESOLEN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s no alternative. And since we are dealing with alienated and lonely people, whatever we do in this vein will be attractive. I mean, some people of course will hate it because they know that we don’t go along with the sexual flavor of the day.

But a lot of people look at us and say, you know what, it’s lonely where I am and I don’t even know what joy is. But these people over here, I don’t know what the heck they’re drinking, but I want some of that drink. Well, come on over. Come on, come on, we’ll give you some of that drink. We got a real human life over here. Even if they’re not yet persuaded that we have knowledge about divine things, they’ll be attracted to us because we are doing human things, human things that have been lost. 

SMITH: Tony Esolen, thank you so much for your time and for your good words today. I appreciate it very much. 

ESOLEN: Thank you, Warren.

(Photo/The Federalist)

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