The Visionary Insight of J.B. Priestley

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The Visionary Insight of J.B. Priestley

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Actions taken at every level of society are relentlessly contradictory. National leaders speak out of both sides of their mouths. Politicians talk of peace while preparing for more wars. This hints at our modern dilemma.

English author J.B. Priestley (1894-1984) clearly saw this 20th-century conundrum when he observed that ours is "an age of deepening inner despair and of appalling catastrophes, an age when society says one thing and then does something entirely different . . . Western man is schizophrenic."

Unusual conclusion

The last few pages of Priestley's magnum opus, Literature and Western Man (William Heinemann Ltd., London, 1960), are worth the price of the book. Particularly poignant are his comments on the doubt and uncertainty so many experience in an often cruel and unfriendly world.

Priestley first considers the special qualities of the greatest writers in modern history, in particular William Shakespeare. Then he sums up his subject by saying: "The greatest writers of this age . . . are aware of the mystery of our existence" (all quotes excerpted from pp. 440-446).

Though Priestley never fully understood the spiritual implications of this wonderful mystery in his own lifetime, he exhibited great curiosity regarding man's existence on planet earth. Why do we behave as we do? How did we manage to turn the civilized world into such a mess? This is a constant concern in Literature and Western Man, his greatest nonfiction work (unfortunately now out of print, but available through libraries or an out-of-print book search).

Priestley, in that telling last chapter, quickly turns his attention to "that curious malaise of modern Western man. Too many things are going wrong at the same time. Any last pretence of society having a religious foundation and framework, being contained at all by religion, has vanished." Strong words.

The author speedily identifies the root cause of our modern malaise, the lack of that essential cohesive spiritual element that glues society together: religion. This is particularly true in Britain and Northwestern Europe, a region some observers have labeled the North German plain of irreligion.

The British writer profoundly observes: "The catastrophic outer world of our age [the 20th century] is the confused and angry inner world of the nineteenth century dramatised on the largest scale." In other words, we do what our predecessors could only dream of.

Back to Victorian values?

J.B. Priestley realized that the intrinsic difficulties faced by humans cannot be solved by merely tinkering with superficialities. Fundamental change is needed at the deepest level of the human heart. He recognized that never has there been a time in history during which society ever had it right, and that in fact most of our problems have deep historical roots.

We occasionally hear from preachers and statesmen that "we need to return to Victorian values." Don't you believe it! True, the Victorians had their strengths, but underneath was a ghetto of horrific poverty, repressed by the double standards of parlor society.

Make no mistake: We must return to values. We must hastily restore authentic religious values, a purity of thought and mind stemming from solid biblical principles based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. We must promote a return to obedience to the Ten Commandments in the letter and the spirit. This is not Victorian regulation, but a cleansing of the human heart.

Nothing else will work. The letter alone will not suffice. It never did. Surely this is the message of the Old Testament. "For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as unto them; but the word which they [those ancient Israelites] heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those that heard it" (Hebrews 4:2; see also Deuteronomy 5:29).

Our age is noteworthy for its lack of faith. It is a disruptive, skeptical age. The trashing of our traditional values has accelerated in the last 40 years, leaving heaps of broken lives in its wake. Take, for instance, the onslaught of sex.

The smut explosion

Viewing 1960 in retrospect, illicit sex had far from reached its zenith. But even then Priestley perceived that its place in society was dangerously unbalanced.

He wrote of sex in the light of the crisis of doubt and uncertainty facing modern men and women. Literature, he wrote, "cannot carry the load. Nothing we have can carry it. Since the second war . . . we are sure of nothing but sex . . . We are now piling on to sex the whole load of our increasing dissatisfactions, our despair, a burden far greater than it can safely take."

Priestley's words were penned more than 35 years ago. Since then these seeds have taken root and grown. They are even more applicable today.

In what the apostle Paul nearly 2,000 years earlier called "this present evil age" (Galatians 1:4), human beings find themselves desperately hungry for some mysterious, intangible ingredient. Many vainly try to fill this need and longing by indulging in more and more illicit sex. The cost to themselves and society has proved staggering. The horrendous scourge of AIDS and the disturbing growth of pornography are just the tip of the iceberg.

So where can we find solid answers when all about us we see immorality, doubt and confusion? "Religion alone can carry the load," says Priestley. Then he adds: "And it is doubtful if our society can last much longer without religion, for either it will destroy itself by some final idiot war, or, at peace but hurrying in the wrong direction, it will soon largely cease to be composed of persons."

The last man in Europe

Another British author, George Orwell, perceived this even before Priestley. Orwell's original choice of title for his novel 1984 was The Last Man in Europe. He saw all others apart from the hero, and possibly the heroine, as depersonalized and dehumanized.

This is not a new phenomenon. In the Bible Paul wrote about such people in the first-century, who, "having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God . . ., who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness" (Ephesians 4:18-19). Paul's sad conclusion: Their humanity had virtually ceased to exist.

The attempt to retain any compassion in a hostile society is a perennial challenge. It was the great dilemma faced by the Europe occupied by the Nazis during World War II when a courageous few risked their lives to hide entire families. Surely their story is significant. What gave them the courage to be humane while the world around them grew increasingly barbaric?

In ages past some have stood alone as people of honor, emerging as shining lights in their degenerate societies. In that sense, as well as almost literally, was not the patriarch Noah the last man on earth?

Dehumanization of society

We don't fully realize how far we have already traveled down the road of dehumanization. As Priestley observed even back before President John F. Kennedy took office, we are "gradually inducing the anaesthesia that demands violence [and] crudely horrible effects to feel anything at all."

What could be seen just after mid-century simply pales into insignificance beside the violent images that our televisions, videotapes and movie screens now depict nearly 40 years later. Not satisfied with increasingly bizarre and brutal fiction, we watch footage of our police as they deal with drug-crazed, drunken and violent men and women on our streets, particularly in America and Britain.

Noted The Independent in a piece about veteran Hollywood actor Gregory Peck, "He looks at cinema today and what he sees saddens and repels him." In Peck's own words: "Blood splashed upon the screen for the sake of sensation . . . worries me, this sick, foolish, meaningless violence for the sake of violence, without any real significance to the story" (April 6, 1996).

Abetted by the miracle of visual technology, the horrific violence and illicit sex we see in the entertainment and news media don't seem as sick and disgusting as they did only a few years ago. We unwittingly find ourselves in a fool's paradise, not realizing what is happening to the minds God gave us.

If we did, we would voluntarily rush to rid ourselves of much that passes for entertainment. As Roy Rogers once said, it's "not even fit for my horse Trigger."

Religion can make a difference

Consider this point from Literature and Western Man: ". . . If we openly declare what is wrong with us, what is our deepest need, then perhaps the death and despair will by degrees disappear."

In the Bible this is called repentance, which always precedes a return to true religion.

The resolve to make an individual difference in an ugly society is a crucial feature of real religion. In the world at large those who are learning to be Christlike may not fundamentally alter the selfishness or injustice of society, but even a small candle can make bearable the darkness.

Christians can be those proverbial candles, showing the courage to love when the love of many waxes cold (Matthew 24:12) and exhibiting real concern even when a wicked society is at its darkest. This is so necessary because it is a way of standing for the solid values of another, much better, age to come while we live in this one.

Jesus Christ Himself showed how His followers can make a difference: "You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16).

The mystery of life

Literature and Western Man cautiously continues: "We . . . may not ourselves find the right healing symbols . . ., but, just as a first step, we can at least believe that man lives under God in a great mystery."

Knowing why we live and understanding our destiny is an antidote for despair and disillusionment and essential to our mental and spiritual health. We need to discover the missing parts of our lives.

We shouldn't be surprised that the Bible would concern itself with this great mystery as well. Many scriptural references use the word mystery in the context of the awesome purpose of human life. For instance, the apostle Paul wrote of "the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began" (Romans 16:25).

Paul told of speaking "the wisdom of God in a mystery" (1 Corinthians 2:7). This precious knowledge can be grasped today, not necessarily by everyone, but by those to whom God has mercifully revealed it. This is why Paul spoke of God "having made known to us the mystery of His will" (Ephesians 1:9).

What is this mystery, and how can we unravel its hidden promises? Ultimately, why do we exist?

The United Church of God has produced a free booklet that comes to grips with the essential elements of the mystery of life. Write or call for What Is Your Destiny? today to help you understand the mystery so few comprehend. You'll be surprised what the Creator of the universe has in store for you. GN