Last week, as my mother died in hospice, I was following a Cadillac Escallade. Its windows were tinted dark, and its back window had a message for the poor fool following. It said,
Not of this worldI did not know that my mother was dying at that moment, but it would not have mattered for the bitterness, nor the irony. After all, my mother loved her Cadillac Sedan De Ville cars, back when they were made of steel and absurdity. This person's entry into the competition for curb crushing weight and sky obliterating volume was just another harlequin at the fair.
What stood out was the message. The owner of the car took the time to brand it in such a way that it advertised and advocated an other worldly point of view -- one that troubled me immensely.
The peculiarity of the item added, I am sure, to the starkness of the inherent problem. The window glass was tinted black to ensure that the cabin of the padded bouncy castle was private, that it reflected inward, that no one could see in (or, if one is behind the vehicle, through to traffic). The white paint with razor thin lines mimicking a Batista-era moustache, and the vast tires competing for notice with the sparkling golden hubs, jumbled things so completely, so genuinely, and so unselfconsciously, that the whole masticated slush of populist philosophizing and proselytizing only managed to say, "I like hypocrisy, how 'bout you?"
I have trouble with the ichthus badges on the backs of cars, and I am a prayerful Christian. I am sure that all who read this know that the symbol of the fish was supposed to call to mind the word, "ichthus," which was an acronym in Greek: "Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ", (Iēsous Christos, Theou Huios, Sōtēr), or "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior." However, the thing was developed as a secret sign during persecutions so that Christians needing aid could find one another. It was not advertising!
What is the fish symbol's purpose on a car? Is it to affect a conversion in the unsaved driver? If so, a symbol by itself is obscure, and the unsaved driver is going to have to decode it, consult scripture, go to a church, and then have grace. Is it to identify a persecuted individual for fellowship? If so, then how? Am I supposed to zoom up to pass the driver, honk, make an air genuflection, and say, "Me, too!?" Or is it to say, "Unlike you people, I am a Christian?" The latter, of course, means saying, "I have spiritual pride, and I dare you to out-do me."
Given my history, therefore, with the ichthus, this tinted placard made me even more puzzled.
The Puritains themselves gave us the "Puritan work ethic," but folks get that thing wrong. They did not believe in getting rich, and the belief in getting rich hasn't much to do with the PWE (I feel like I'm on familiar terms with it and so can use an abbreviation). First, the "work ethic" was not a positive value. Puritains, and some of their modern descendants, believed that they were Elect, that they were, in fact, the particular elect of God. They read the Bible for something called types. A type was not an allegory or symbol, but rather a repeated event that would be called by a single name. Thus, in Scripture, David would speak of the king, in the Psalms, but the same words would be a type and prefiguration of the Christ. So, also, the Mayflower folks read themselves as the Chosen fleeing Pharoah to establish Israel in a far land.
They established a "covenant" with God, and God would grant success to their nation with providence in accordance with their adherence to that covenant. As John Winthrop said on the way over to Massachusetts:
We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission. The Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles. We have professed to enterprise these and those accounts, upon these and those ends. We have hereupon besought Him of favor and blessing. Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath He ratified this covenant and sealed our commission, and will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it; but if we shall neglect the observation of these articles which are the ends we have propounded, and, dissembling with our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.When you are the particular saints of God, then Lucifer finds it worth his while to try to claim you. This is why the Puritains ended up becoming as ascetic as the monks and nuns that they hated in the Roman Catholic Church. The human body distracted, at best, or befouled the saintly devotion, and thus, "Idle hands (were) the devil's workshop" in America.
It's curious that we call the accumulation of wealth through slavishness "the Puritan work ethic," because it conflates two separate strands of their thought. On the one hand, they thought that success would be a sign of divine favor, because (and only because) they were types for the tribes of Israel, and, on the other hand, they thought that constant work was the best way to avoid gluttony, sloth, or, worst of all, lust.
The Puritains are gone. Their children are gone, too. The men and women who, upon encountering a mid-Atlantic storm, felt joyful that they might go to their real home, have gone on to that haven-home of eternity. The Puritain attitude toward the American Indian was psychopathically fractured, as the Indians could be the objects of pity or hatred, but they were not so consistently converted as one might assume. Remember that the Puritains were elect. The Indians were thus the Canaanites. It was as much a divine command to conquer the tribes, to the Puritains, as it was for the Jews to take Canaan.
The Puritains were also singular in their fascination with the End Times. Once one may read the Bible with types, all sorts of possibilities emerge. Curiously, everyday believers could couple their priesthood of all believers (and therefore an insistence on "plain meaning" and textual certainty) with Types to become the most offensively hermetic readers of the period.
Jonathan Swift would ridicule them in 1696's A Tale of a Tub by the figure of Jack, who is so zealous of cleansing his religion that he needed a new name for his legal principle, and
"he made a shift to find a very plausible name, honoring it with the title of zeal; which is perhaps the most significant word that hath been ever yet produced in any language; as, I think, I have fully proved in my excellent analytical discourse upon that subject; wherein I have deduced a histori-theo-physi-logical account of zeal, showing how it first proceeded from a notion into a word, and from thence in a hot summer ripened into a tangible substance.""Zeal" licensed and forgave all. It would also be called "enthusiasm" and "phrenzy" -- the state of spiritual ecstasy that occurs when one is visited by the Holy Spirit. Revelation became proof by itself, and, as Swift argued in the same work (the "Digression on Madness," section IX),
"But when a Man's Fancy gets astride on his Reason, when Imagination is at Cuffs with the Senses, and common Understanding, as well as common Sense, is Kickt out of Doors; the first Proselyte he makes, is Himself, and when that is once compass'd, the Difficulty is not so great in bringing over others. . ."In other words, after illustrations like Margaret Fell, who claimed visionary authority, as well as scores of less luminary individuals, such as Jane Leade, who anticipated what America would undergo in the Second Awakening, the remnants of the Puritains had moved into an area that might seem predictable and familiar: the individual believer with the greater revelation (and "greatness" seemed to depend upon dramatic deviation from the well known) became the most attractive. The values propagated grew more and more quietist, more and more pietist, and more and more millenarian.
That bouquet of defeat, withdrawal, individual piety, and dedication to both solitary revelation and millenarian fears, is the wine of American evangelicanism in the television age. It is especially the body of the assumption behind a coal-burning electric plant, a gasoline SUV of the gravest weight, and a blithe lack of concern for torture or loss of privacy for Them. In the case of the Puritains, they had a reason to feel defeated: they had won their war, only to see their New Jerusalem turn sour, and then they had lost the public. They felt dispirited and defeated, and it was natural for them to retreat to the concern for the individual. Our wealthy SUV driver, though, needs more understanding.
We know the potency of this appeal. We should also know the toxicity. In English history, the withdrawn pietist was eventually brought together by George Whitefield's preaching, which became an extremely socially active (if prim) Methodism. Had Amy Semple MacPherson succeeded, perhaps something similar might have happened here, and each of the television evangelists would like to assume the mantle, but, in our age of increasing separation, it's quite doubtful. Therefore, we have -- those of us who believe in the polity and the Gospel of society -- to know that they are there, that their language is not gibberish, that they are used.
If we could ever tell these strangers and saints that their sanctity could be shown by keeping the place pleasant for their fellows, that their fellows are not demons, that as they do for the least they do for Christ, that the enemy is to be loved, then they might deserve their belief, and it could be that they won't have to paint their moral badges on their cars themselves.