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A Tale of Two Obituaries

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Pragmatism, or "going along to get along," can reveal itself in many different ways. Three areas where pragmatism commonly rears its ugly head in the modern Church are: theistic evolution (name your flavor), church-growth, and liberal theology. While something of a catch-all, liberal theology can be defined as any movement or set of beliefs that seeks to redefine or ignore certain parts of the Bible. Liberals, in reality, seek harmony between God’s revealed Word and the so-called wisdom of those who suppress His truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18-20). Their pragmatism causes them to believe that light and darkness can fellowship, that fire and water can mix, that both P and not-P can be true in the same relationship. Forgetting that the “foolishness of God is wiser than men,” proponents of theological pragmatism embrace foolishness in a futile attempt to not look foolish in the eyes of covenant-breakers.

H.L. Mencken was a fool. He was an incredibly literate, well-read and thoughtful fool, but still a fool nonetheless. He eschewed God’s wisdom for the foolishness of the creature, Nietzsche in particular. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7). Mencken hated the idea of a sovereign God, almost as much as he hated the idea of people living their lives in praise to this God. But he could spot a pragmatist when he saw one. As a senior reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun, Mencken told the editors what he would write, not the other way around. Anyone familiar with the newspaper business will tell you that senior reporters don’t write obituaries. The obits are typically formulaic cut and paste, three-paragraph pieces. Nevertheless, Mencken took to writing at least two obituaries in his tenure with the Sun. The first was for William Jennings Bryan in 1925 and the second for J. Gresham Machen in 1937.

Mencken despised Bryan, but he held the utmost respect for Machen, even lamenting that he “never had the honor of meeting him” personally. “The generality of readers, I suppose, gathered thereby the notion that he [Machen] was simply another Fundamentalist on the order of William Jennings Bryan and the simian faithful of Appalachia. But he was actually a man of great learning, and, what is more, of sharp intelligence.” [1] Perhaps his never having met the man is what led Mencken to be non-hostile in his eulogy for Machen. After all, he had met Bryan face-to-face in Dayton at the Scopes Trial. “When I first encountered him [Bryan]... he was still expansive and amiable... The next day the battle joined and his face became hard. By the end of the first week he was simply a walking malignancy. Hour by hour he grew more bitter.” [2] Focusing almost exclusively on the last week of his life, Mencken thoroughly discredits Bryan. His musing on the value of Bryan’s life as a whole is sobering:

But what of his life? Did he accomplish anything useful? Was he, in his day, of any dignity as a man, and of any value to his fellow-men? I doubt it... The issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment’s notice. For years he evaded Prohibition as dangerous; then he embraced it as profitable. At the Democratic National Convention last year he was on both sides, and distrusted by both... He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not. [3]

Mencken’s primary problem with Bryan was his pragmatism. Mencken knew that Bryan was willing to jettison his “beliefs” the moment they were found to receive lower numbers in the polls. Mencken found this to be the most intolerable thing about Bryan. But consider his remarks about Machen who, like Bryan, also was a Presbyterian and a fundamentalist.

In his own position there was never the least shadow of inconsistency. When the Prohibition imbecility fell upon the country, and a multitude of theological quacks, including not a few eminent Presbyterians, sought to read support for it into the New Testament, he attacked them with great vigor, and routed them easily... Bryan was a Fundamentalist of the Tennessee or barnyard school. His theological ideas were those of a somewhat backward child of 8, and his defense of Holy Writ at Dayton during the Scopes trial was so ignorant and stupid that it must have given Dr. Machen a great deal of pain. Dr. Machen himself was to Bryan as the Matterhorn is to a wart. His Biblical studies had been wide and deep, and he was familiar with the almost interminable literature of the subject. Moreover, he was an adept theologian, and had a wealth of professional knowledge to support his ideas. Bryan could only bawl. [4]

While Mencken vehemently disagreed with Machen, he respected the fact that he would not compromise his core belief of the supremacy of Scripture. “He denied absolutely that anyone had a right to revise or sophisticate Holy Writ... Anyone was free to reject it, but no one was free to mutilate it or to read things into it that were not there.” [5] Mencken instinctively understood what seems to escape modern Christianity. The very academic respectability that adherents of theological pragmatism seek by softening, weakening and flat-out denying the “embarrassing” portions of Scripture (miracles, the resurrection of the dead, creation out of nothing, etc.), is the very thing that keeps them out of the social circles of the “truth-suppressors.” Skeptics, humanists and atheists are no respecters of persons who quickly toss their basis of truth out the window at the first opportunity. It seems like the reasonable thing to do—going along to get along—but in reality it is a death sentence that will isolate the pragmatist from both camps. Machen died as he lived, a defender of the whole counsel of God. Bryan died as he lived also, but neither side sought to claim him.

Endnotes:

[1] H.L. Mencken, “H.L. Mencken’s Obituary of Machen,” quoted in Gary North, Crossed Fingers (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1996), 942.
[2]
H.L. Mencken, “Obituary for William Jennings Bryan,” Baltimore Evening Sun, 27 July, 1925.
[3]
Mencken, “Obituary for Bryan.”
[4] Mencken, “Obituary for Machen.”
[5] Mencken, “Obituary for Machen.”

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