Book Review: Intellectuals

IntellectualsIntellectuals by Paul Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A book that is devastating to many of those that modern thinkers hold in high esteem, such as Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy, Sarte and Brecht. Johnson knows a lot, has studied a lot, and is willing to call these men (and one woman) what they were: mean, greedy for fame and often money, immoral, hateful towards women and children, and above all persistent liars. Truth for them was malleable, especially when their reputation was at stake.

One reviewer said that Johnson ignored their good contributions, which is not true. He notes that if Tolstoy has stuck to writing he would have been fine. He says that Hemingway’s devotion to his craft was unsurpassed. But the point of the book is that they did not just write or speak. They thought they were messiahs who had some special destiny to guide humanity in truth. The theme is not what they did well, but how their lives were staunchly immoral, despite their accomplishments.

As I look around our world the thoughts and ideas of these men still echo, but it has shifted to Hollywood. Today it is not philosophy professors or even playwrights who shape thinking, but actors, directors, and the movies they make. Fascination with sexual freedom, the love of money, the shading of the truth in the name of Humanity, the desire to identify with the workers, excusing violence when it accomplishes their ends, and the vicious intolerance of all opposing viewpoints was characteristic of intellectuals and is now characteristic of Hollywood and our ruling class in general.

Unfortunately, Johnson’s book assumes, what can no longer be assumed, a standard of right and wrong that has long since be lost. Most who read it today will be fascinated, but ultimately will say, “So what that Hemingway was a drunk adulterer? Who cares that Marx lied? Who cares that men claimed to be pacifists, but often supported violence to accomplish their goals? What is that to me? I like their books and their ideas and their movies. And isn’t my opinion and feelings what really matters?” That response goes to show that, at least in America and Europe, the intellectuals have won.

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Tear Your Hearts, Not Your Garments

We love outward shows of piety and righteousness. We like people to know when we do something right. We also like people to know that we have repented when we do something wrong. We like visible shows of piety. But Joel 2:13 reminds us that the goal is a change of heart, not a change of clothes. You can make all sorts of signs of repentance. You can weep, moan, kneel, do penance, pray, and yet your heart remain untouched. Outward signs of repentance do not mean there has been inward change. 

We like shallow repentance. We like easy answers, with little digging and little pain. We want to be forgiven and yet keep our sins. But Jesus tells us to pull out our eyes if they cause us to sin.  Joel tells us that tearing our coats are easy. Giving a little extra money is easy.  Kneeling is easy. Tearing your hearts? Not so easy. Gouging out your eyes? Not so easy. Cutting off a hand? Not so easy.

The good news is that Jesus is kind. He will grant us repentance if we seek for it. The real question this morning isn’t, “Will Christ grant us a heart to repent, forgive us, and help us turn from sins?” The real question is, “Do we want a repentance that deep?” Or do we just want to look repentant? 

Exhortation before the confession of sin: March 15th, 2015.