A work of art must endure a while to become a classic. It must survive its own novelty and still speak. Paradise Lost has earned its prestige as a classic of classics. Milton set a poetic standard when he composed the 12-book epic (while blind in the 17th century, no less. 150 years before braille). Pure craft, though, only carries one so far. Paradise Lost endures because Milton used his craft to bore into the strata of reality until he struck bedrock truths. His characters and themes contain an evergreen sap, especially as they enact and interpret political endeavor. John Milton was a regicide-endorsing revolutionary and a fiercely literate Puritan of sorts, so he certainly had some rather passionate ideas about authority and cultural conflict. What might he have to say to the American culture war of the 21st century? In particular, what might he have to say to the American church?
The generation now coming into its own in the American church was born about the same time as the famed Moral Majority and other organizations in the broader Christian Right movement in American politics, and so this generation of local churches has been steeped in the waters of a church embroiled in overt political activism. This generation has also outlived the Moral Majority, and may yet outlast any notion at all of a “Christian” political right, whose legislative and cultural legacy is presently being swallowed up in defeat. The American church now must find a way forward in the long shadow of that divisive if well-intentioned movement.
In many ways, the Moral Majority was a movement of force that, while waged against the throne of the god of this world, tragically, turned all too readily to all too familiar tactics. A politically-engaged and contentedly public face of the church interpreted her great commission as a call to arms in the public square and by the calculus of political might and, often, social shaming. There’s no way around it, the most aggressive parts of the church fought the ruler of this world on his own terms, with his own weapons, and, it would now seem, has wrought a stinging defeat on the church as a whole.
In a lot of ways, Paradise Lost is about misguided ambition. If you can see such in recent church history, then you can read Paradise Lost in a post-Christian America with and uncanny sense of recognition. Milton gives us an unconventional hero: Satan. Not that Satan’s actions are admirable or good, but his conquest drives the narrative; we’re asked to relate to him who, having himself waged an ill-advised revolution against the throne of his world, is similarly stung and defeated. Now, lest we think it beneath us to relate to such a notorious villain, let’s remember that even as we read the Bible itself, we ought to feel most comfortable relating to cheating-hearted Israel and tax collectors if the Scriptures are to make any sense, so this bad example shouldn’t seem so scandalous.
Paradise Lost gives us the story of imprudent war and its consequences. Satan and his angels fought the throne of heaven, lost, and were exiled. The political dealings of the so-called Christian Right followed a strikingly Satanic arc, that is the same arc as Milton’s Satan. In the wake of its rebuffed gambit, the American church’s exile from the spheres of political and cultural influence now mirrors the defeat fall from heaven of Milton’s Satan. Take line 824 of book six in Paradise Lost. Answering his Father’s call to arms after two days of war, the Son of God stands his army down:
“So spoke the Son and into terror changed
His countenance, too severe to behold
And full of wrath bent on his enemies.
At once the four [cherubim] spread out their starry wings
With dreadful shade contiguous…
He on his impious foes right onward drove
Gloomy as night.” (6.824-832)
To survey the conservative blogosphere’s account of the cultural backlash against the Christianity is to feel the sinking dread of the church experiencing such a fate. Perhaps she may even do so.
Like Milton’s Satan, the American church may well have earned her lumps. Attempting by force of law that which can only be won by grace, the church entered an arena in which she was explicitly not equipped to do battle—an arena of force and fear over winsome meekness, of efficiency over faithfulness—and now faces hard lessons in the true application of earthly power. A political kingdom has never been in the books for the church, though she is often tempted to forget and reach once more for power (which is the real kind of Satanic). No, the church’s mission is that of salt and light and hidden effort. Power and recognition in this world are their own reward, and a paltry, fleeting one at that. Still, as she enters exile from ideological influence, the church, like Milton’s Satan, may be permitted her second thoughts.
In book four, Satan has some alone time upon arriving at the newly-minted earth. He rages at the sun for recalling to him the state from whence his “pride and worse ambition threw [him] down.” (4.40) He even comes to the precipice of repentance (4.80), but, of course, if his pride had permitted him that path, the book wouldn’t be called Paradise Lost. What kinds of second thoughts, though, might the church have about her politics?
At the least, a strong argument could be made that a Christian politician does not exist to pass “Christian” laws, but to make disciples—like any other Christian—of those around him or her with whom they personally relate (albeit in the halls of power, an intricately fraught arena for the gospel of a contrite heart). And, this is not with the further end in view of a Christian voting bloc to ram through legislation or otherwise enforce a “Christian” society upon a pluralistic people. The salvation of men and women is the end, never the means. Anything to the contrary flows from a confusion in the church about her place and role in this world, and just as likely from jealousy of those who aren’t the subject of Matthew 5:11 if one were frank. It’s not fun to stand out, open to rebuke. Of course, it’s tempting to try to build some kind of society into which one blends seamlessly. Biting at this lure has never served the church well. May the church cross the threshold of repentance.
In making a way forward after the catastrophe of her most recent power play, which she bears on the credibility of her presence in the cultural landscape, the generation of her people in a secular age can yet turn to Milton, to his depiction of a debate within Satan’s high command, and see her potential paths. A proper paradise is at stake.
In book two, the fallen angels gather in Pandaemonium to lick their wounds and argue their future. Three of the fallen step forward.
First, Moloch advocates redoubled war; for his cohabitants of hell to “armed with hell flames and fury all at once…[to turn] our tortures to horrid arms against the torturer” (2.61)—namely God—and “disturb his Heaven, which, if not victory would at least be revenge.” (2.102, 105) The church could take this course—indeed some have—by seizing what power remains in reach, redoubling its efforts to wed the church to some kind of political or social power structure and, by cold force of law, legislate some earthly paradise under the banner of heaven. This might look like economic boycotts or thoughtlessly taking the side of anything peddled under the adjective “Christian” with no prudence as to its quality or character, and it certainly looks like puffery and vitriol on the Internet. Antagonizing ones enemies in the culture war, “torturing the torturers”, must be anathema to the church. Her battle is not against flesh and blood and so the tactics and reflexes of the flesh have only a hellish place in her.
Belial offers a less hawkish alternative, though riddled with fear of further suffering and, should God completely destroy them in response to further violence, losing his cherished intellect, his “thoughts that wander through eternity.” (2.148) Preening even in Hell. He counsels staying put and suffering silently, but his words finally belie his true ambition: that, after some time, God would
“remit His anger and perhaps, thus far removed
not mind us not offending, satisfied
with what is punished, whence these raging fires will slacken.” (2.210-212)
Prizing comfort more than his mission, he hopes to slink back into Heaven by disappearing into a neutered inoffense. Again, the church could follow such a path, to blend silently back into the kingdom against which it warred, coming to heel at the foot of that dark prince. This could look like excising, bit by bit, everything which might offend a neighbor—real or imagined—until the church is utterly eviscerated, that is gutless. Mammon chides Belial’s wile as “splendid vassalage”, and well put. What, then, would this last devil advise?
First, he sees no integrity in singing “forced hallelujahs” to a throne vehemently opposed, yet sees further war as bull-headed vanity. His thesis, then is to “seek our own good for ourselves…though in [exile] free and to none accountable. [To prefer] hard liberty before the easy yoke of servile pomp.” (2.252) His entire soliloquy is a brilliant rejoinder to the folly surrounding him on the left and the right, and he is met with a storm of applause. Of particular interest for the church, though, is his notion of liberty.
The church might see herself as Mammon sees his position save for one critical difference: he rebelled against heaven and the church is in rebellion against hell. Their two exiles are of perfectly contrasting character. Mammon’s pride and sense of liberty, however, applied in the right direction, is beautiful. Though the path be hard, actual liberty is unassailable, especially by a cosmically illegitimate power. The church must rescue her notion of liberty from her notion of success and even of fairness. She is always free to bear witness whether in comfort or in chains and even (perhaps especially) in death. Jesus’ liberty, after all, took him to the cross.
Now, political liberty is good and worth advocating. The church, however, ought to discern the kind of liberty felt in comfort from her higher liberty of conscience. This may look like the church singing hymns in chains like Paul and Silas, or even blessing her captors—literal or philosophical—but it will always look like faithful courage at any cost.
Consider her true position. Any king can only punish his own subjects; his sovereignty is limited. Setting aside Milton, the real Satan is no different. All of his power withers up and dies at the border of the eternal Kingdom of the Son of God. So long as the church prizes faithfulness over success and popularity, dividing fleeting from eternal, she will be preserved through any Satanic furnace even if that furnace is stoked so hot that its flame consumes the guards tasked with throwing her in. True liberty is immortal.
Mammon is also right about one other thing: “[thriving] under evil and [working peace] out of pain through labor and endurance.” (2.261) The church, aided by the Spirit, can indeed make prosperity from adversity. Mammon, though, restricts the scope of good to his fellow fallen. His exile is closed; there are only the fallen in Hell. The church, however, remains in place in this pluralistic world, living out her deportation before the watching citizenry. She can, therefore, make good for herself, but also for others who observe her exile. And in so doing, the church’s faithfulness to the character of her founder can be made to produce fruit. In a final irony, the church can actually see achieved what Milton’s Satan lit out from Hell to do by corrupting Adam and Eve: to drag others “down” with her and spite the god of this world on his throne. The church does this, however, knowing full well that in this inverted world, down is up and her defiance of its god abets an act of rescue from his crumbling stronghold. What a final coup if the church, in faithfulness, holds her courage.
Paradise Lost gives us a highly unexpected blueprint for the church in this world, especially in those seasons following an overt grab for power that ends in failure and backlash. We read the classics because, at their best, they clarify those parts of our mutual passage through history that endure deeper than generational novelties. And with clarity comes courage.