A Shepherd of Wolves

A gray wolf in Montana. (Photo by B. Von Hoffmann/ClassicStock/Getty Images)

Author’s note: Wanderland will, if all goes according to plan, return to its familiar format next week. Many of you have asked about the triplets: They are thriving, and I will be writing something about the experience in the future. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the following. 

“As I was observing,” continued Michael, “this man also took the view that the symbol of Christianity was a symbol of savagery and all unreason. His history is rather amusing. It is also a perfect allegory of what happens to rationalists like yourself. He began, of course, by refusing to allow a crucifix in his house, or round his wife’s neck, or even in a picture. He said, as you say, that it was an arbitrary and fantastic shape, that it was a monstrosity, loved because it was paradoxical. Then he began to grow fiercer and more eccentric; he would batter the crosses by the roadside; for he lived in a Roman Catholic country. Finally in a height of frenzy he climbed the steeple of the Parish Church and tore down the cross, waving it in the air, and uttering wild soliloquies up there under the stars. Then one still summer evening as he was wending his way homewards, along a lane, the devil of his madness came upon him with a violence and transfiguration which changes the world. He was standing smoking, for a moment, in the front of an interminable line of palings, when his eyes were opened. Not a light shifted, not a leaf stirred, but he saw as if by a sudden change in the eyesight that this paling was an army of innumerable crosses linked together over hill and dale. And he whirled up his heavy stick and went at it as if at an army. Mile after mile along his homeward path he broke it down and tore it up. For he hated the cross and every paling is a wall of crosses. When he returned to his house he was a literal madman. He sat upon a chair and then started up from it for the cross-bars of the carpentry repeated the intolerable image. He flung himself upon a bed only to remember that this, too, like all workmanlike things, was constructed on the accursed plan. He broke his furniture because it was made of crosses. He burnt his house because it was made of crosses. He was found in the river.”

Lucifer was looking at him with a bitten lip.

“Is that story really true?” he asked.

“Oh, no,” said Michael, airily. “It is a parable. It is a parable of you and all your rationalists. You begin by breaking up the Cross; but you end by breaking up the habitable world. We leave you saying that nobody ought to join the Church against his will. When we meet you again you are saying that no one has any will to join it with. We leave you saying that there is no such place as Eden. We find you saying that there is no such place as Ireland.”

G. K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross

“The predominant narrative of the Big Bad Wolf, which has its roots in biblical stories and Northern European fairy tales, arrived with colonization of America.” So writes author Erica Berry in a New York Times essay advertising her recent-ish book, Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear. (“Wise and arresting,” Vulture calls it.) It is in the minor part a book about wolves and in the major part a book about the author’s debilitating anxieties, which are wide-ranging, intense, and baroque. The stupidity of the sentence in the Times caught my attention, and so I read the book (which came out last year) and found that it is, as one might expect from the sentence above, a kind of barely literate confession of a particularly of-the-moment and Western species of madness (and here I do not necessarily mean the medically diagnosable kind; that isn’t my field) taking the form of an obsession that is unmistakably religious in character: a set of vague but intense convictions—alternately romantic and moralistic notions about our relationship with the natural world—held with the smug moral certitude one usually associates with a bright teenager, or with someone who once was a bright teenager and kind of stopped there in life even as the years went by. But why not be ignorant and certain at the same time? It is good business just now, and it is not as though a New York Times editor is going to ask, “Which biblical stories?” 

But—which biblical stories?

What we have here is another variation of the mania described by G. K. Chesterton in The Ball and the Cross, in which an evangelical atheist ends up attacking roadside fences because they are, if you look at them the right way, made up of wooden crosses. Substitute cringe-inducing adolescent pastoral romanticism for good old-fashioned atheism, and there you have it. 

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