A Dangerous Book
A Third Testament
reviewed by Preston Jones
A foolish consistency,” said Emerson, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Modern readers wishing to prove the point can turn to Malcolm Muggeridge’s recently re-released Third Testament—essentially the script of a TV series on seven men in search of God that aired in Britain, the United States, and Canada.
Since we are talking about “St. Mug” here, there’s no reason for me to stress that his spare prose is elegant and attractive, though sometimes too sweeping, eulogistic, and purplish in hue. (The “dazzling attractiveness” of Pascal’s wife “shines out across the three intervening centuries.”) Nor is there a point in dwelling on Muggeridge’s endearing curmudgeonliness, though that vein does sometimes flow into the merely reactionary. (The liberators of Germany at the end of the Second World War, he says, incredibly, “were to liberate no one and nothing.”) Neither need I elaborate when I say that, at the time A Third Testament first appeared (in the 1970s), Muggeridge pined for the unity of Christendom.
And yet, save for Augustine and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the men he rightly praises in this book—Pascal, Blake, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy—were individualists who, in one way or another, bucked the Christian cultures prevalent in their respective societies. (Bonhoeffer bucked a pagan and pseudo-Christian culture.) Finally, anyone who knows anything about Muggeridge understands that he despised mass media, and he made the point, often, on . . . television. Emerson was right!
Muggeridge himself saw too much of the world, and was too smart, to be enamored with pedantic systems. As a journalist he had seen firsthand the consequences of Soviet logic. And his own long and peculiar road to faith, which led to his conversion to Catholicism at the age of eighty, taught him that God does different things in different ways with different people. Long before modern man was subjected to the canting choirs of “diversity,” Muggeridge knew that, in everyday life, one size rarely fits all.
This is one reason why educational reformers should take a glance at this short and gratifying little book. Augustine enjoyed an elite education that emphasized rhetoric. Pascal was home-schooled by his father, and his interest in devising a calculating machine was born of the practical desire to help his dad, a tax collector, do his work. William Blake’s early education consisted partly in following his own natural interests (“the only thing to do was to set him free with pencil and paper to follow his own fancies in the Abbey—a perfect place for this purpose”). Dostoevsky spent six years at the Military Engineering College in St. Petersburg, but the school seems to have left little mark on him. Tolstoy was a college dropout from Kazan University. So many different “educational experiences”—and the world is the better for it. Thank God the National Education Association or, for that matter, the Society for Classical Learning (with which I’m associated) wasn’t around to force these kids into a certain mold. Today’s doctors of education would pump young Soren Kierkegaard full of Ritalin.
Of course, Kierkegaard’s neighbors in Copenhagen might have wished that they could sedate him. His attacks on comfortable “Christendom,” with its robes and empty pomp and affluence; his assaults on daily newspapers as being “diametrically opposed to Christianity”; his fierce independence and combativeness, spurred in part by a deep introspection and awkwardness—all this put Kierkegaard at odds with his society and, to the extent that his wars contributed to his early death, with himself. But Kierkegaard, Muggeridge says, was a genuine prophet; “it was almost inevitable that he should fall out with the Church”—else he wouldn’t have played his part in setting it aright.
Upon completing Muggeridge’s short text, I thought that it would be a good book to use with eighth-graders at the school where I teach. Its chapters on the seven famous seekers are intelligent and unpretentious, short but meaningful. It’s an excellent introduction to great men. But then I thought to myself: What if the students actually put two and two together and took Muggeridge’s point? Then, perhaps, they could find justice in bucking the system and the dress code, in telling the professor to get off his high horse, in contributing articles to the school newspaper denouncing the hypocrisy of. . . .
And then I grabbed Muggeridge’s dangerous little book and stowed it, close but safe.
Preston Jones teaches at the Cambridge School of Dallas.
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