Do not quench the Spirit.
~I Thessalonians 5:19, English Standard Version
The first hurdle that I needed to jump for the light to truly transform me was to believe that God could actually defeat my enemy. I know that sounds a bit silly, especially for a professed believer in Christ, but I had spent so much time in isolation that I had internalized the “fact” that Satan was more powerful than Christ. Speaking through her character Louis, Anne Rice best sums up what I had come to believe as truth:
“People who cease to believe in God or goodness altogether still believe in the devil. I don’t know why. No, I do indeed know why. Evil is always possible. And goodness is eternally difficult…You don’t have to see Satan when he is exorcised. But to stand in the presence of a saint…” (13).
Evil was all around me; I could feel it in my dreams and during my waking moments. God had never felt so incredibly distant, so inaccessible. Belief in Him had become surreal and the words of the enemy a tangible truth. This is the battle that Sheridan Le Fanu highlights in the story of Captain James Barton. Barton had spent so much of his life holding his dark secret in isolation that when it finally begged to be exposed to the light, he became yet another “uncounted victim of the Imp of the Perverse” (Poe 640).
It is not by accident that Le Fanu stresses the fact that his protagonist is a professed atheist. As the story opens, Captain Barton finds himself in a discussion with his future bride and her guardian about the evidences of revelation and the existence of the supernatural (Le Fanu 36). During this discussion, Barton “disputed with the callous skepticism of a confirmed infidel” the evidence in question (Le Fanu 36). What is even more interesting is the reaction of his fiancee and her guardian. Le Fanu writes:
“What were called ‘French principles’ had in those days found their way a good deal into fashionable society…and neither the old lady nor her charge were so perfectly free from the taint as to look upon Mr. Barton’s views with any serious objection…” (36).
These “French principles” Le Fanu alludes to are best represented by the immortal words of Jean Jacques Rousseau, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” (10). The French Revolution was to mark the rise of man from the ashes of tradition. Its purpose, drawing from the Enlightenment philosophies of Voltaire, Diderot, Helvetius, d’Alembert, Holbach, and Rousseau, sought to make reason, not spiritual insight, the measure of all things (Cranston 47). The goal of the French Revolution was:
“…The creation of a new man- or at least the liberation of pristine man, in all his natural goodness and simplicity, from the cruel and corrupting prison of the traditional social order” (Cranston 46).
At the core of the traditional social order was Christianity; a religion that placed despots in power and justified their oppression based on “divine right.” During this era, many in fashionable British society were watching closely the events in France, hoping that the same sentiment would wash over Britain as well.
Captain Barton had become a student of these French principles and shared the sentiments of the Romantics that a new era would only dawn when man solved his problems using reason and not through a blind reliance on superstition. This philosophy is what gives the Imp of the Perverse so much power over the minds of man. Evil is still viable, but the goodness and grace of a supernatural God is no longer in favor. The effects of this new system of thought are eloquently expounded by Edgar Allan Poe:
“The intellectual or logical man, rather than the understanding or observant man, set himself to imagine designs- to dictate purposes to God. Having thus fathomed, to his satisfaction, the intentions of Jehovah, out of these intentions he build his innumerable systems of the mind” (637).
The system of thought established by the philosophies of the French Revolution sought to place man as the pinnacle of Creation. It was through the mind of man that all men would be liberated, and to retain a firm belief in the supernatural foundations of Christianity was to remain in a self-imposed intellectual prison. Those who did retain a belief in Christianity, neutered it of all supernatural trappings and sought to present it as an intellectual alternative for those who desired to retain a belief in God.
With the death of a supernatural and good God, the question of evil now becomes an intellectual stumbling block. Evil no longer has an antithesis in which to give it definition; it now exists in isolation. Instead of an understanding that evil is the perversion of good, post-Enlightenment man asks the question of how a good God can exist in the face of evil. The perspective is, in all honestly, backward. Evil only exists in opposition to the good. Without some idea of what is good, there is no way to state that an action is evil; there must be a point of reference. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, states clearly this reference point as being the commands of God (ESV Ro 7.7-12). The purpose of the Law was to define evil to make man consciously aware of sin and a need for repentance before a holy God. When Christ died, he died a death that paid for all transgressions once for all and by this single offering ushered in an era where God put His laws on our hearts and wrote them on our minds (ESV Heb 10.12-16).
Without some idea of what is good, there is no way to state that an action is evil; there must be a point of reference.
What has been written by a good and holy God on the hearts and minds of all men for the benefit of his relationship with his fellow man, has now been taken for granted leaving man questioning how evil could exist when he is, in his heart, inherently good.
Here lies the foundational lament of so many gothic writers, Sheridan Le Fanu included. In face of a dying faith, what role does the supernatural play? Do supernatural powers really drive man forward toward his ultimate destiny or is he, as the Greeks believed, a victim of inhuman fate? Again, Poe outlines the foundational question all must grapple with in a post-Enlightenment world:
“If we cannot comprehend God in his visible works, how then in his inconceivable thoughts, that call the works into being? If we cannot understand him in his objective creatures, how then in his substantive moods and phases of creation” (638)?
In my own personal journey, the answers to these questions began to take focus after reading Anne Rice’s classic Interview with the Vampire. I felt a kinship with Louis’ intellectual struggle to accept the existence of the supernatural and reconcile that existence with my Enlightenment foundations. The origin of Louis’ intellectual struggle began when his brother revealed to him a vision he received from God. Upon this revelation, Louis’ response was to send his brother off to school to educate such “innane notions” from his head (Rice 8). Confronting the probable truth of his brother’s vision, Louis felt an intense and contemptible anger. He acknowledges being a Catholic and following the rituals required but not internalizing the faith he seemingly professed. He firmly believed his brother was lying by sheer fact of biological relationship. Louis freely acknowledges that his brother was different from everyone else, a difference demonstrated in the power of his convictions in regard to the Christian faith (Rice 6). He viewed himself, however, as nothing extraordinary; therefore, it was impossible that God would speak such revelations to his brother (Rice 6, 9). To deny the faith, to deny the fact that God’s supernatural agency works in the lives of man, concludes Louis, is to act out of a “vicious egotism” (Rice 8). This is the same place Captain Barton finds himself in the face of his ghosts.
What could possibly happen in the life of a man, who held a staunch disbelief in preternatural agencies, to come to the realization that his only hope of deliverance was the Church? After bearing as much as he could manage, Barton finds himself at a crossroads. The haunting has weighted heavily on him physically, mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually. He could no longer bear up under the tremendous mental burden the manifestations were causing, so he sought solace from his burden in the counsel of a pastor. What amazes me the most is the contrast in the mindset of Barton, a professed atheist, and Dr. Macklin, a student of the Holy Scriptures. At the onset of their conversation, Barton prefaces with the following statement:
“I know what you are going to say…I am an unbeliever and therefore incapable of deriving help from religion; but don’t take that for granted…Circumstances have lately forced it upon my attention, in such a way as to compel me to review the whole question in a more candid and teachable spirit…than I ever studied in it before” (Le Fanu 49).
Sitting before him, contrite in heart and seeking spiritual help for what he clearly recognized as a spiritual problem, Dr. Macklin has a unique opportunity. Barton is ripe for the gospel, hungry for it. He knows that there is “a spiritual world- a system whose workings are generally in mercy hidden from us…I am sure, I know…that there is a God” (Le Fanu 49). In light of this confession, how does Dr. Macklin, a man of the cloth, respond? Does he pull out his Bible and walk Barton through the steps required to accept Christ? Does he listen to Barton’s confession and tell him that a loving, merciful God is there for him and that this God has the power to end his tribulation? No, he does not. Instead, Dr. Macklin gives him the neutered, post-Enlightenment answer:
“…I venture to predict that the depression under which you labour will be found to originate in purely physical causes, and that with a change of air, and the aid of a few tonics, your spirits will return, and the tone of your mind be once more cheerful and tranquil as heretofore” (Le Fanu 49).
This has been the modern Church’s answer to spiritual affliction. We have rejected the power of God for the false hope offered to us by science and as a result fallen victim to the “vicious egotism” that man can solve all of his own problems. It is despicable and the world can see our hypocrisy.
Anne Rice builds on this idea of spiritual hypocrisy in the church. Louis found himself at a similar crossroad as Captain Barton. He was in spiritual agony over the death of his brother. He had given into his fear and self-loathing and accepted the offer of Lestat to sell his soul for eternity for the power of the vampire. Yet, even when in possession of the ultimate power of the undead, Louis still battled with his belief in a holy God. He finds himself standing in front of a cathedral, longing to feel fear, to see the stones of the church tremble at his evil presence, and he felt nothing (Rice 142). Standing in the midst of the church he stared at the statues, statues of saints that possessed “lifeless profiles, staring eyes, …empty hands” and came to the terrifying realization that the church was only a “cemetery of dead forms” (Rice 143). As a vampire he existed outside the bounds of human mortality, an epitome of evil, and this brought him to the vivid realization that:
“God did not live in this church, these statues gave an image to nothingness. I was the supernatural in this cathedral. I was the only super mortal thing that stood conscious under this roof…and I remained standing. Untouched. Undead- reaching out suddenly for the plaster hand of the Virgin and seeing it break in my hand, so that I held the hand crumbling in my palm, the pressure of my thumb turning it to powder” (Rice 144),
Louis was standing in the midst of the Church of Sardis. All around him stood a Church who had the reputation of being alive, but was truly dead (ESV Rev 3.1). This is the same Church that told Barton, even the face of a confession of belief, that solace could only be sought at the hands of science. Christ has a stark warning, this Church needs to wake up and repent before it is cut off completely from His sight (ESV Rev 3.2).
Taking in Dr. Macklin’s words, Captain Barton is grief stricken. He has realized that the only hope he possessed was that “by some other spiritual agency more potent then that which tortures” is the only force that has the power to combat his demons and set him free; without such power he is left hopeless and lost forever (Le Fanu 50). We who are spiritual know that the devil is coming to us with great wrath, because he knows his time is short (ESV Rev 12.12). He is on the prowl, looking to catch the faithful off guard and to keep those living in darkness bound and sightless (ESV 1 Pe 5.8; Ga 6.1; Ac 26.18). Church, we need those who are spiritual to come out of hiding and speak life back into those fully devoted followers of Christ to whom the enemy has taken by surprise. We need to assure those who are searching that the supernatural power of Christ on the Cross is reliable truth. If we in the Church do not acknowledge the presence of supernatural forces, how will our message of Christ crucified suffer? The world sees our hypocrisy and many are lost in the fallout between the Word of God and the actions of the Church. We need to consciously remember the Word that we have received and repent; for the ones who conquer will be those to whom Christ confesses before the Father (ESV Re 3.3, 5).
Biblegateway. Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles. 2001. Web. 18 July 2016.
Cranston, Maurice. “The French Revolution in the Minds of Men.” The Wilson Quarterly. 13.3 (1989). 46-55. Print.
Le Fanu, Sheridan. In a Glass Darkly. London:Wordsworth. 1995. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York:Barnes and Noble. 1992. Print.
Rice, Anne. Interview With The Vampire. New York:Ballantine. 2009. Print.
Rousseau, Jean Jacques. The Social Contract. Trans. G.D.H. Cole. New York:BN Publishing. 2007. Print.