What They Will Never Know

In recent days, the Canadian Christian television show, 100 Huntley Street, has been uncharacteristically aggressive in its denunciation of the anticulture about us.  The topic is teenagers and smut—sometimes it is good to return to direct and morally charged words.

Their guest has been Josh McDowell, who has spent his whole adult life bringing Christ to young people.  About five years ago he began to notice a change in his audience.  One might say he began to sniff the sour tang of a cesspool; or he caught sight of a film over their minds, like scum floating atop stagnant water.  That was when he discovered how many of them had been wallowing in the smut, which they ushered into their lives with terrible ease.  If a young person has a hand-held internet device or a computer in his bedroom, only a fool would bet against it.

So one of the crew of 100 Huntley Street set out to interview young people about sex—meaning, these days, not the rich mystery of being male or female, but habits of copulation.  One comment struck me especially.  A young man said that a “couple” he knew would view pornographic videos as “education,” and would then try out for themselves what they had seen.

Education, “the great Mumbo-Jumbo and fraud of the age,” as Muggeridge so memorably called it, education justifies everything.  How can anyone oppose curiosity?  How can anyone wish to prevent people from learning things?  Well, even a contemporary moron might blanch at what one young girl has boasted about learning.  She strangled another girl and wrote about it on Facebook.  Oh, she was nervous at first, but when it was a-doing, there was nothing like it!  LOL.

Desperately do we need to recover the wisdom of both Scripture and the ancient pagan philosophers and poets.  Evil darkens the mind.  Evil causes ignorance.

Perhaps the nastiest of the villains in Plato’s dialogues is the young Euthyphro, who boasts he knows all about piety, and is busy prosecuting his own father on a trumped-up charge of murder.  Euripides’ Jason is smugly content to toss aside the sorceress Medea, who murdered her own brother to assist him; his utter selfishness blinds him to the approaching disaster, when Medea will murder their sons.  Paris took the bribe that Aphrodite offered him, and absconded from Mycenae with Helen, the wife of his host; and brought destruction upon himself and his city.

Jesus heals the blind man, then rebukes the stubborn Pharisees for their blindness.  If they knew they were blind, they could be healed, but because they say they see, their sin remains (Jn. 9:41).  Saint Paul says that men could have known God, but gave themselves up instead to their empty imaginations, and their foolish hearts were darkened (Rom. 1:21).  Isaiah even uses as a symbol the central object of education, the book, and prophesies that they who have turned from God will become as a literate man before a book that is sealed, or as a man who cannot read at all (Is. 29:11-12).

Christian poets understood the principle too.  Virgil leads Dante into hell, where he will see those who have lost il ben dell’ intelletto, “the good of intellect.”  When Beatrice brings the poet to the Empyrean, the highest of the heavenly spheres, she says that it occupies no physical space, but exists wholly in the mind of God.  It is a realm of “intellectual light.”  Milton’s Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, and then, after giving us ironically ignorant displays of their ignorance, they make love, consummating their guilt.  Then they awake:

Up they rose
          As from unrest, and each the other viewing,
          Soon found their eyes how opened, and their minds
          How darkened; innocence, that as a veil
          Had shadowed them from knowing ill, was gone,
          Just confidence, and native righteousness,
          And honor from about them, naked left
          To guilty shame; he covered, but his robe
          Uncovered more.

At least Adam and Eve were married, and were in love.  Their deed here was amorous, anyhow; not what Milton derides as the “casual fruition” of whores and whoremasters, whereby men and women view one another as rutting beasts, or as implements for self-gratification.  The cold and mechanical term “hookup” had not yet been invented.

So our teenagers are learning things.  We their parents learned a few of the same things too.  Now perhaps it is time to consider what they have not learned, and what they will never know.

Love, says Christopher Marlowe, is not gentle, but cruel when it means to prey.  Our young people are becoming experts in the cruelty of lust; no surprise that some of them cross over to the lust of cruelty.  But such “experts” forgo the knowledge born of meekness and delicacy.  A person of the other sex, the one I cannot easily fold into my own ego, is a world of mysterious possibilities.  What does it mean to be such a person?  What is it like, to beget a child one cannot bear?  What is it like to bear a child?  What does he long for, in his manhood?  What does she long for, in her womanhood?  What does he fear?  What does she fear?

Our teenagers who know so much about the mechanics of copulation miss the sweetness of simple humanity.  People used to sing merrily about holding a girl’s hand while walking home from the dance—holding a hand.  With that touch, they knew the thrill, perhaps for the first time, of being deemed worthy of love.  What is it like, to be a boy or a girl who could be made dizzyingly happy by so simple a touch?  We will never know.

No one opens an operator’s manual with reverence and trembling.  A vacuum cleaner is not an object of love.  But a human being is not a tool.  What is it like, to be growing into an adult body, with one’s innocence (so far as it is possible for a sinner) preserved?  What is it like for a girl to look upon a handsome young man and be fascinated by his face—the set of his eyes, his smile, the turn of his head, the person in body and soul shining through?  What is it like for a boy to look upon a beautiful young woman and be swept away by the grace and goodness of her actions, from the way she plays with a small child, to the way she sings to herself, as if summing up in one all the beauty of the world about her?  We will never know.

A boy used to have to pay court to a girl, to win her love.  They did so in view of parents and kin, and, if they were Catholic, in the haven of the Church and her sacraments.  That meant that they entered a vast field of meaning, both earthly and heavenly.  What might it be like, to be invited to attend Mass with the girl’s family for the first time?  To kneel beside her to receive Communion?  Then to return to her home, with brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins?  To enjoy a meal together, after the meal?  To be well-come, into a whole history?  To see one’s love in relation to all those other bonds of love?  To know, without having to express it in words, that the flutter in the pulse that you feel when she smiles upon you, is a part of the symphony of love that God has ordained?  To know that there is nothing you need to hide from all these others, that you are still as harmless as the playful little brothers and sisters with smudges of ice cream on their shirts?

What is it like, to grow in wisdom and understanding of love?  To do so in a long approach to the altar of God—an approach sometimes stately, sometimes merry, sometimes fraught with self-doubt, sometimes soaring with joy?  What is it like to make the solemn vow before God and man, without having implicitly and mendaciously made it in a cheap motel room or in a basement or on the back seat of a car?  What is that moment of everlasting promise like, when the body of the other is yet undiscovered?  How may we describe the decision to board that adventurous ship?

What is it like, to know one’s spouse for the first time?

We are a generation of the dull, blank, listless, hopeless; a generation of youth without mirth, age without wisdom.  Even our eros is pallid and nerveless.  The words of Isaiah again: “It shall even be as when an hungry man dreameth, and, behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is empty: or as when a thirsty man dreameth, and behold, he drinketh; but he awaketh, and behold, he is faint, and his soul hath appetite” (Is. 29:8).  But what can an old prophet tell us?

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Anthony Esolen is the author or translator of 28 books, most recently In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press), No Apologies: How Civilization Depends upon the Strength of Men (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, a book-length poem made up of 100 poems centered on the life of Christ. He has also begun a web magazine called Word and Song, on classic hymns, poetry, language, and film. He is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

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