Wheaton College, C.S. Lewis & Bad Jackie: On preferring the nightmare to reality

Wheaton College, C.S. Lewis & Bad Jackie: On preferring the nightmare to reality July 23, 2012

One unappealing possibility is that Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College, is making his clumsy debut as a culture-warrior because he is nothing more than a lying hack. I hope that isn’t the case. I hope he is not simply posturing about Satanic baby-killers to stroke his own pride or to feed his addiction to self-righteous indignation or in a grasping attempt for political influence.

That would explain why Ryken is publicly saying untrue things about emergency contraception, but it’s only one possible explanation, and I hope it’s not the correct one.

It’s also entirely possible that Ryken simply doesn’t know any better. He may be saying untrue things because he does not know the truth.

Granted, the latter possibility doesn’t quite mean that Ryken’s grandstanding is innocent. When a public figure speaking publicly makes such sweeping pronouncements without bothering to get his basic facts correct, the best we can say is that he’s recklessly and irresponsibly indifferent to the truth. He might be too lazy to have bothered checking his facts ahead of time. Or he may have an unappealing eagerness to believe the worst about other people.

But still, even though such ignorance can’t quite be excused as innocence, it would still be far less bad than if he said such untrue things simply because he’s a shameless liar.

But we needn’t speculate. This is something we can know.

Yes — we can know, one way or the other. This is knowable.

There’s a test for this. The test is as elegantly simple as it is conclusive.

It’s the simple test that Good Jackie passes and that Bad Jackie fails. It’s the same test that you apply each time you send a Snopes link to your Fox-addled Uncle Jim in response to his latest Facebook posting recoiling from yet another imaginary horror.

How does Uncle Jim respond to the evidence Snopes presents? That’s the test. Is he happy to learn that the horror is not real? Or is he angry that the horror is being taken away from him?

That tells you all you need to know. That lets you know all you need to know.

If your Uncle Jim is really upset at the possibility of whatever the horrible thing he’s denouncing is, then learning that such a horrible thing is nothing to worry about should make him happy and relieved. “Oh, thank goodness,” he’ll say. “I’m so glad to learn that this terrible thing isn’t actually happening.”

But if, instead, your uncle gets angry when faced with such evidence, if he defensively dismisses that evidence, or even the possibility of such evidence, then you can know that he was never really upset at the prospect of the horrible thing. He was excited by it and excitedly for it. He wanted the nightmare to be true — needed it to be true. He prefers a world in which such a thing were true.

When someone defensively prefers the nightmare to the evidence, then we know — we know — that he enjoys the nightmare. We know that it serves some emotional or political need for him — a need so great that reality itself cannot stop him from trying to meet it.

That’s a bad place to be. Bad Jackie is never a happy person. Or a good person.

The last time we discussed this simple test, Xeno reminded us that C.S. Lewis also wrote about this in Mere Christianity. Lewis urged all Christians to apply this test to ourselves as a prophylactic against the soul-destroying corrosion of Bad-Jackie-ism:

The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

I write about this a lot because I believe that Lewis is describing precisely what has been happening in American evangelicalism over the past four decades. And I do not believe that he overstates the consequences of it.

American evangelicalism has fallen in love with its own nightmares of Satanic baby-killers, desperately wishing — and then pretending, and then almost believing our own pretense — that we are on the side of righteousness against superlative evil.

We need that nightmare to be true. We want it to be true. We’ve forgotten who we are or who we might be without it.

And we’ll fight to cling to this nightmare, reality be damned, even if clinging to the nightmare means we will never again be truly awake. Even if clinging to our imaginary horrors fixes us forever in a universe of pure hatred.


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