We Want to Believe

“We want to believe. Young students try to believe in older authors, constituents try to believe in their Congressmen, countries try to believe in their statesmen, but they can’t. Too many voices, too much scattered, illogical, ill-considered criticism. It’s worse in the case of newspapers. Any rich, unprogressive old party with that particularly grasping, acquisitive form of mentality known as financial genius can own a paper that is the intellectual meat and drink of thousands of tired, hurried men, men too involved in the business of modern living to swallow anything but predigested food. For two cents the voter buys his politics, prejudices, and philosophy. A year later there is a new political ring or a change in the paper’s ownership, consequence: more confusion, more contradiction, a sudden inrush of new ideas, their tempering, their distillation, the reaction against them—”

This Side of Paradise p. 152

“We want to believe … Too many voices, too much scattered, illogical, ill-considered criticism.” And things have only gotten worse, here, 100 years later. I do think we want to believe (we wouldn’t worship political parties if we didn’t), but it’s a fools worship—surely we know deep down that our politicians are not gods!

But as Amory says here, we’re busy, too busy to care that we’re being fed pre-digested food, food that has been chewed by who knows … .  And that’s our meat and drink. And it doesn’t even cost us the two cents for a paper anymore. We don’t have to make our way to a news stand. They send it into our homes: on our TVs, computers, and phones—free politics, free prejudices, free philosophies, served up fresh every day all day. And we carry on down that road. We see no wrong in our gods because we don’t stop and use our minds. There’s no critique, no thought, no recognition that our particular god of the moment—however much an image bearer he might be—is fallen. And we give no critique, no thought, no consideration that our enemy—no matter how fallen he might be—is an image bearer. May God have mercy on us all. 

No More Heroes

“Well,” Amory considered, “I’m not sure that the war itself had any great effect on either you or me—but it certainly ruined the old backgrounds, sort of killed individualism out of our generation.”

Tom looked up in surprise.

“Yes it did,” insisted Amory. “I’m not sure it didn’t kill it out of the whole world. Oh, Lord, what a pleasure it used to be to dream I might be a really great dictator or writer or religious or political leader—and now even a Leonardo da Vinci or Lorenzo de Medici couldn’t be a real old-fashioned bolt in the world. Life is too huge and complex. The world is so overgrown that it can’t lift its own fingers, and I was planning to be such an important finger—”

This Side of Paradise p. 151

It’s hard to imagine back in the 1920s Fitzgerald thinking the world so interconnected that it no longer produced heroes. When Tom presses him, Amory agrees there will still be heroes in history, just not in life. And then he gets down to his main point: 

“But we no sooner get a popular reformer or politician or soldier or writer or philosopher—a Roosevelt, a Tolstoi, a Wood, a Shaw, a Nietzsche, than the cross-currents of criticism wash him away. My Lord, no man can stand prominence these days. It’s the surest path to obscurity. People get sick of hearing the same name over and over.”

Oh, if only he was right. Now the cross-currents of criticism won’t let the name die out. How many conservatives still harp on Obama—though with Biden to point to, he is less of a target. And how many progressives still bring up Trump—even though he’s mostly out of the spotlight. Our enemies live rent free in our heads. 

But however the 24-hour news cycle and social media feeds keep people alive and important, are there any great men anymore—any we can’t do without? We’re easily bored and easily fascinated by the new kid in town, but he’s never necessary. The democratization of all things has made the hero obsolete—and untrusted by the masses.

And so the church must stand in—not in the world’s eyes, but in our communities’ eyes. In fact, our communities’ only hope is if the local church becomes indispensable. There are no more heroes to save the day. 

Gifted without a Moral Sense

“And of course all that [the Superman] is is a gifted man without a moral sense.”

“That’s all. I think the worst thing to contemplate is this—it’s all happened before, how soon will it happen again? Fifty years after Waterloo Napoleon was as much a hero to English school children as Wellington. How do we know our grandchildren won’t idolize Von Hindenburg the same way?”

“What brings it about?”

“Time, …, and the historian. If we could only learn to look on evil as evil, whether it’s clothed in filth or monotony or magnificence.”

This Side of Paradise pp. 111–112

First, it is ironic that Amory agrees with Alec’s statement about the Superman being a gifted man without a moral sense. That’s Amory. If he could only learn to look on evil as evil even if it’s clothed from Amory’s own wardrobe. 

But Amory is right: we need a moral vision that is not distorted by filth or monotony or magnificence. 

Sometimes we are moved to pity by filth—and it can be proper to be so moved. But we must learn to distinguish between filth that is self-inflicted and filth that has an outside cause for that should determine how we engage with it. 

We can be moved to boredom—and acceptance—by the monotony of the message, worn down into accepting evil because we finally begin tapping our toes to the rhythm that won’t leave our heads. 


And finally: magnificence. That may be the allure of fashion or money or just an I’m-on-your-side-against-that-evil rhetoric. Evil doesn’t mind attacking a different evil if it can gain followers. How duped we can be—even when the evil is right out in the open—by someone who’s “on our side” or who “is one of us” or who “will stand up against the other evil.” I hope that, especially in the church, we can be more self-aware than Amory. 

Worship

[Clara] had started him thinking and he believed she was partly right. He felt like a factory-owner who after accusing a clerk of dishonesty finds that his own son, in the office, is changing the books once a week.

This Side of Paradise p. 105

What Amory failed to see, that Clara pointed out, was that he had lousy judgment. But while Clara teaches him a fact, she can’t move him to remedy this defect, for Amory believes himself to be Nietzsche’s Superman. One would think this realization would humble him, would get him out of his head. But no, Amory can’t get out of his way and assumes that what comes into his head is the right thing to say—as we see a few lines later:

“I think,” he said and his voice trembled, “that if I lost faith in you I’d lose faith in God.”

But to say that to one who “was very devout, always had been,” well, that was the quickening of the end of that relationship. Clara didn’t want to be worshipped, yet Amory thought his worship of her would be enough for her—or at least he hoped it would. She was unmoved, for she knew the difference between worship and love. 

But how many others have foolishly accepted the misguided worship or faux worship of another human being. We struggle to worship our creator aright—so why are we so deceived into groveling at the worship of a fellow creature, who ultimately won’t worship consistently—especially one of the opposite sex? 

We were made to worship, not to be worshipped, and God is a jealous God. He’s not jealous in the vindictive, petty jealousy of the Roman gods. He is, instead, jealous for his people, like a shepherd for his sheep, knowing that their straying toward another object is in no way good for them. Amory, because he worshipped the creature rather than the creator could not escape the downward spiral. 

Laziness, Not Bad Luck

“But Amory, honestly, what makes me the angriest isn’t the fact that you won’t be chairman of the Prince and on the Senior Council, but that you didn’t get down and pass the exam.”

“Not me,” said Amory slowly; “I’m mad at the concrete thing. My own idleness was quite in accord with my system, but the luck broke.”

“Your system broke, you mean.”

This Side of Paradise p. 73

Amory was lazy—and ignorant of how that laziness had actual, real ramifications—or so stubborn in his laziness and Superman delusions that he actually believed it was something random—luck, as he called it—that stepped in and overthrew everything. And overthrow everything it did. While the downward spiral had already started, it began picking up momentum rapidly here—the episode with Rosalind not withstanding. 

But Amory assumed all would be well. That’s what overarching pride does: kick against the goads and make excuses and point fingers when one’s toes turn bloody. How easily the Superman becomes the victim. But Amory will not find Razkolnikov’s redemption. The Bible speaks more about personal responsibility than about victimhood. It’s not that it doesn’t recognize victims and then demands—yes, demands—that God’s people care for those who have been mistreated or who are in danger of being mistreated: foreigners, widows, orphans, the poor. 

But the Bible doesn’t let the individual off the hook for his or her behavior. Cain isn’t coddled because his feelings were hurt by God over his offering. He was told to watch out and not let his feelings keep him from avoiding the sin currently tugging at his sleeve. Cain’s feelings were irrelevant to the situation.

Joseph isn’t continually reassured that everything will be ok when he’s abused, mistreated, wrongly accused, and forgotten. He’s held up as an example precisely because he persevered when there was really no good reason to. When the stress of leading the nation of Egypt through difficult times was placed on him after the years of mistreatment, he wasn’t treated as a victim but expected to perform and come through. 

Paul wasn’t patted on the back when he turned from persecutor to apostle; he was told how much he was going to suffer for the one he had turned to and trusted in—and he did suffer (see 2 Corinthians 6:4–10, 11:23–28). And in his suffering he didn’t demand a relaxing of any of God’s demands on his life—either in his calling or his behavior. 

Amory points his finger at luck. Amory’s pride will rear its ugly head again and again. He will genuinely be hurt, but he takes little personal responsibility for his role. Life crushes him, and he has no moral fiber to withstand the pressure.