I see by the Letters column that I'm in trouble with readers again, but when am I not? Which is fair enough. More than fair, since I signed up for criticism when I became a newspaper columnist. Indeed, a columnist who isn't in trouble isn't much of one. If he isn't offending somebody somewhere, he isn't doing his job. Because he isn't saying anything.
There are worse things than drawing flak in the public prints. Like a columnist's churning out stuff so tepid he never gets a response at all. You have to try to be that boring. I don't know how David Broder does it.
A confession: When the letter writer disagreeing with me is petty, petulant, peevish and generally small-minded, I enjoy it. It's not that I'm a masochist; it just feels like vindication. If those are the kind of people who disagree with me, how wrong can I be?
I tell you what bothers me: When a letter writer who's petty, petulant, peevish and generally small-minded agrees with me. Now that hurts. If those are the kind of people who agree with me, how right can I be?
The other day, the good old Letters column offered responses pro and con to a column of mine about the Christmas Wars, the annual donnybrook over how to observe the birthday of the Prince of Peace.
Apparently there are two camps, the Merry Christmas crowd and the Happy Holidays people, and some folks insist on pitting them against each other. Like the Rev. Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. He'd used the church's website, Lord forgive him, to post a list of those businesses whose observance of the holiday did not accord with his standards. Apparently they'd wished customers Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas.
Besides being petty at a time of year that should inspire generosity, this struck me as coming too close to intimidation. It lacked, shall we say, Christian charity.
A letter writer in Edgemont, Ark. -- that's on the shores of beautiful Greers Ferry Lake in the northern part of the state -- took exception to my views on season's greetings. (Which might be summed up as Good Will Toward Men.) On the subject of coming too close to intimidation, I'd mentioned my father's unhappy experience with the protection racket in Chicago back in the all-too-roaring Twenties. And so, rebutting my every point, the letter writer even managed to put in a good word for the mob before he was through. All in all, a most satisfying response to a column.
The letter right below it -- it came from a reader in Hot Springs, Ark. -- was more complimentary. He liked my mention of Christopher Hitchens' tolerating Christians praying for him even though he's a prominent, and fervent, atheist. Or as he put it, "A Jewish writer employing the model behavior of an atheist to spank a naughty Christian preacher -- does it get any better than that?"
It got better immediately thereafter when the letter writer mentioned my second-favorite Christian apologist. "Somewhere," he wrote, "G.K. Chesterton is smiling." Any letter that cites Chesterton can't be too bad.
My very favorite Christian apologist is the very readable (on any topic he chose to write about) C.S. Lewis, who was the first professor of medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge, where, which was just like him, he argued that there was no such thing as an English Renaissance. Which makes sense: Any break with the past as abrupt as a renaissance would naturally offend the English sense of propriety, not to mention the English sense of continuity. Let's hope there'll always be an England. These days you can't be sure.
C.S. Lewis was a defender of the faith but never a zealot. Indeed, he abhorred zealotry and vulgarity in general. Perhaps because he had a sense of humor -- see "The Screwtape Letters" and "Mere Christianity." He never put much store by clever polemics, either for or against religion. He even wrote a prayer for Christian apologists like himself:
The Apologist's Evening Prayer
From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which the angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of thy divinity
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.
Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle's eye,
Take from me all trumpery lest I die.
I'm not sure to whom atheists would appeal for such humility, but surely the best of them, like the best of believers, seek it, too.