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Talking God by Metaphor

That Strange Divine Sea: Reflections on Being a Catholic

By Christopher Derrick

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 189

Price: $8.95

Review Author: S.L. Varnado

S.L. Varnado is Professor of English at the University of South Alabama in Mobile and a Contributing Editor of the NOR.

One of the chief faults of certain religious writers is that they tend to be too “religious” — in the wrong sense of the word. Since God is pure spirit, such writers feel obligated to discuss Him in a rarified spiritual atmosphere — an atmosphere that often threatens to asphyxiate the reader. After perusing a few such theologians, one sometimes feels a secret sympathy with A.E. Housman’s words: “Malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man.”

But theology need not be a dry game, as evi­denced by Christopher Derrick’s latest book, That Strange Divine Sea, a fascinating and highly origi­nal account of what “being a Catholic” means to the average man.

Derrick, the NOR’s En­glish Correspondent, hails from a tradition of En­glish spiritual writers that includes G.K. Chester­ton, Hilaire Belloc, Ronald Knox, and C.S. Lewis. As Lewis’s pupil at Oxford, he mastered the art of writing fresh, chatty prose that can transform ab­stract religious doctrine into clear down-to-earth terms. His prose is as secure and comfortable as En­glish roast beef, ale, or bacon. Like Chesterton (who once quipped that “bacon wrote Shake­speare”), Derrick’s view of Christianity is incarnational and geared to human realities.

In the opening chapter, for example, Derrick transforms Original Sin into “Our Raw Human Condition,” replete with aches, pains, loneliness, and perversity. He exposes the fallacies and inade­quacies of such modern solutions as Marxism, Pro­gress, Materialism, and other “institutional” an­swers. “Guilt,” he says, “is now attributed much less to the self, much more to others and to struc­tures and institutions…. It is both easy and en­joyable to repent of other people’s sins.”

Derrick satirizes such “easy” modern answers by his depiction of the perfect world of modern advertising copy:

Everybody smiles all the time, even the man who delivers the milk or the mail is smiling. The car is always new and clean, the house is well maintained…. Every­thing is permanently perfect, and all be­cause you bought the right sort of deter­gent or cereal or laxative.

But beneath this veneer of perfection, lies the same old world of alienation, loneliness, and guilt faced by our ancestors. Nothing has really changed, and for 20th-century man, as for Hamlet, the ulti­mate question remains: “Is it a good thing for us to exist and be alive as human beings?”

In succeeding chapters, Derrick answers the question indirectly in terms of “being a Catholic.” The subject is not heroic sanctity (for as he says, “We are all failures…‘unprofitable servants’ “) but rather the day to day struggles of the average Roman Catholic. The “strange divine sea” of the title is that same, rather familiar, Roman Catholic Church whose “oceanic” qualities are sometimes forgotten by Catholics. Derrick’s purpose is to re­mind the reader of the ultimately mysterious na­ture of that institution while at the same time demonstrating its human practicability.

His chief rhetorical device is the use of ex­tended metaphor or analogy. God, being pure spir­it, can be glimpsed analogically. Derrick’s strategy is to describe the complexities and subtle points of Catholic doctrine by a wide and fascinating range of human images. (His experience as a world-travel­ing lecturer and former R.A.F. pilot serves him well.) The analogies range from the humorous to the startling and profound. God’s intense love for mankind is likened to the blind and impulsive love of a young man for his girlfriend. Faith is “flying blind” with instruments. The Church is “our home­land’s embassy” in a hostile country; and Chris­tians are like members of the underground resis­tance movement. With these and dozens of other images, Derrick assembles a covert apologetic for Catholicism without appearing to argue or indulge in controversy.

In the last chapter, he returns to the question proposed at the beginning: “Is it a good thing for us to exist and be alive as human beings?” This in­volves the age old riddle of theodicy — how to rec­oncile God’s goodness with the suffering and evil of existence. Derrick’s answer is that “being a Catholic” and “being at the Cross” are aspects of the same divine mystery. “We see God at the re­ceiving end of all the world’s grief and misery, not at the originating and responsible end.”

That Strange Divine Sea is a highly original, yet highly orthodox, look at Catholicism through the eyes of one of the leading spokesmen of En­glish Roman Catholicism. This is a book to be rel­ished, pondered, and returned to. It is the sort of work — rare these days — that you can give to your agnostic friend without a blush.

 

©1984 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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