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Beheading Hydra: The Slippery Serpent

  • DWIGHT LONGENECKER

In the second part of the book, we will look again at the sixteen isms and learn the practical steps we can take to overcome them.


Introduction to the Solution

The Slippery Serpent

hydraIn Perelandra — the second of C. S. Lewis' science fiction trilogy — the hero, Professor Ransom, has been transported to the planet Venus, which is still reveling in Edenic innocence.

Ransom encounters not only Venus's Eve but Venus's tempter, in the form of a scientist from earth — Professor Weston.  In their first conversation, Weston spouts a progressive, pseudo-spiritual, intellectual load of mumbo jumbo about mankind living in harmony with one another and nature.  It's the usual diabolical lie — all false promises and lofty dreams — and when Ransom punctures Weston's pomposity with the pin of common sense and the razor of philosophical steel, Weston responds with condescending arrogance before changing the subject.

As Weston descends first into madness, and then into demonic possession, his temptation of the lady of Venus becomes ever more subtle and emotive.  He plays on her vanity.  He seduces her to disobedience with the high drama that she would be a brave pioneer, taking hold of her own freedom in order to achieve full maturity.  Most of all, he wears her down with endless discussion and "dialogue."  He never rests until he gets her to give in.  He bats away Ransom's objections with non sequiturs, mockery, ad hominem attacks, and outright lies.

Ransom expresses his frustration at the fact that the devil can fight dirty, but he can't.  He also observes that the creature "used plenty of subtlety and intelligence when talking to the Lady, but ...  that it regarded intelligence simply and solely as a weapon, which it had no more wish to employ in its off duty hours than a soldier has to do bayonet practice when he is on leave.  Thought was for it a device necessary to certain ends, but thought in itself did not interest it."

I have found the same to be increasingly true in any discussion not only with indoctrinated progressives but with ordinary folks.  The discussion may concern politics, religion, sexuality, economics, or cultural matters.  If there is a disagreement, there is very little logical thought or rational debate.  The two isms of sentimentalism and pragmatism usually rule the day.

No true debate takes place.  Instead, arguments are dismissed by changing the subject, launching a personal attack, or playing the victim.  The invitation to "dialogue" is used as a weapon to wear a person down.  There is no real wish to have an honest exchange of ideas.  The more intellectual, like Lewis's demon-possessed Weston, use rational arguments not as a process to discover the truth but as a weapon — and a weapon that is more like a bludgeon than a rapier.  If their intellectual argument falls flat, they simply deny, lie, and shout more loudly.

We shouldn't pretend this battle is new.  In fact, the battle with the multiheaded Hydra is as old as Eden, but in our age, the serpent has assumed a new and frightening level of global strength.

The Beast from the East

I will tell you about a vision I once had.  I hesitate to call it a "vision" because it makes me sound like some sort of Marian mystic.  Probably better to call it a "mental image" or a "dream image."

It came to me in that in-between state when I was not sure if I was praying or dozing.  But it really doesn't matter.  What matters is the content and context of the vision.

It took place in November 1989, when the world was excited about the fall of the Berlin Wall.  For those who don't remember, the Berlin Wall was the brutal, barbed-wire-topped barrier that was built across the city of Berlin to separate the communist Eastern part of the city from the free, democratic Western part of the city.

Across Europe, communism was crumbling, and my dream vision was this: I saw a gigantic brown bear lumbering along at great speed.  It was terrifying — with red eyes and an open, slavering mouth with sharp teeth and blood dripping from its muzzle.  It came to a crumbling wall and clambered over it.  The bear had been the symbolic beast for Russia (as the eagle is for the United States), and I understood that the bear — the beast from the East—was the spirit of atheism and that, as communism crumbled, this beast was moving into new territory, from the East to the West.

I have thought much about that dream vision over the last twenty-five years, and it seems to me that my vision was prophetic.  In those twenty-five years, we have seen in the West what can only be described as our own form of violent, virulent atheism.  Not only have the "New Atheists" come about during that time, but many more-implicit forms of atheism have grown among us like a noxious cancer.  These are the sixteen isms I have outlined in the first part of this book.  Each of them is a manifestation of atheism.  Our materialistic atheism is not enforced with secret police, confiscation of church property, imprisonment, and torture, as it was in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  Instead, it pervades every aspect of our Western culture.

Swimming in the Swamp 

There is an old saying, "The last thing the fish sees is the water."  We are the fish.  The sixteen atheistic isms are the water — water that is murky and saturated with sewage and mud.  These false, interlocking philosophies have not just influenced our culture.  They are our culture.  Because they are so foundational, we are unaware of them and underestimate their influence.  Because we underestimate them, we have no real idea how to combat them.

Why is this?  Because atheistic relativism has eaten away people's ability to have any kind of real discussion at all.  If there is no such thing as truth, the argument simply slips and slides away.  As I've said before, arguing with a relativist is like wrestling with an octopus in oil in the dark.

Because of relativism, the discussion will ultimately be driven by the other isms: sentimentalism, utilitarianism, pragmatism, and individualism.  Any attempt to assess the truth or state a truth that may be binding will simply be shrugged off: "You have your truth, and I have mine."

Carl Trueman points out that debate is not only difficult but impossible.  Two people who agree that there is an ultimate foundation of truth that is beyond their experience have a basis for discussion.  If one side believes in a greater source of truth, however, and the other not only denies it but doesn't even have a concept of a transcendent source of truth, debate is dead.  There is no connection.  They are playing tennis on adjacent courts.  This is the situation we are in as Christian believers in twenty-first-century Western society.  We believe in a transcendent foundation of truth.  The majority of Americans either deny the existence of this greater authority or are ignorant of it altogether.  Many of those who call themselves Christians — even among our Christian leaders — deny this greater authority or at least deny its relevance to everyday matters.  This is why so many of the arguments in the culture wars are like Ransom's argument with Weston.  It's as pointless and ridiculous as a terrier growling and chewing and shaking a slipper.

What can be done?  How can a battle even commence?  How can one even attempt to behead this creature from the black lagoon — this Hydra from the swamp?

Conflict, Engagement, or Retreat 

In the first part of this book, I grouped the isms in the categories of the world, the flesh, and the devil because Jesus Christ Himself encountered temptations in these categories in the desert.  We who are His disciples have continued to battle these isms down through the centuries—albeit in different forms and with different emphases.

It is worth pausing to consider how our ancestors did battle because, just as the enemy is subtle, the weapons for battle are not what you might expect.  In Rethinking the Enlightenment, Joseph Stuart discusses how Christians engaged the anti-Christian philosophies in the eighteenth century.  They went to war in three ways: conflict, engagement, and retreat.

The first, conflict, is a full one-on-one, head-to-head battle.  Down through history, this has sometimes meant not only an intellectual and political power struggle but actual warfare, persecution, and bloodshed.  This was a failure.  It was counterproductive and only made the enemies of the truth resentful and more determined to fight back harder next time.

The second method, engagement, was accommodation.  In every age, what seems to be a "good Christian" approach to Satan's lies is to find what seems good within the opposing side's position.  It seems as if the most reasonable way forward is to dialogue — to reason with the opposition and, through negotiation and listening, to find shared values and a middle ground of tolerance and cooperation.

Although this sounds good, inevitably it, too, fails because it weakens the Faith.  Resolve disintegrates, and the enemies of truth gain ground.  Moreover, as I have pointed out above, we are in a new situation; the isms have prevailed to such an extent that there is no shared foundation and therefore no realistic basis for dialogue.

Furthermore, atheistic relativists regard those with a transcendent worldview as dangerous bullies who want to impose their faith along with its pointless restrictions on everyone.  Dialogue?  The enemies of the Catholic Faith are not interested in dialogue, and they are certainly not interested in compromise.  They do not intend to take prisoners.  If you give them an inch, they will take ten miles, and Catholics who believe otherwise are naïve.  Christians who seek to accommodate the ways of the world end up adopting the ways of the world, and inevitably the Faith becomes watered down, the Church is weakened, and the light of Christ grows dim.

Conflict or accommodation has been the Catholic Church's experience throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Popes Pius IX and Pius X fought hard to suppress liberalism and modernism.  They entered the conflict, and through their encyclicals, the oath against modernism, the Index of Forbidden Books, and a determined enforcement of rules and regulations, they tried to defeat the lies, but the heads of the Hydra would not be defeated.  The serpents of modernism simply slithered away and hid.

The second Vatican Council can be understood as an attempt at accommodation.   The Fathers of the Council tried a different tactic.  They studied carefully and selected what they thought was good from the modern world and adapted those ideas to Church teaching.  The Second Vatican Council was a great experiment in engagement, ecumenism, and encouragement, but as we have all experienced, it left the Faith weakened.  The enemies of the Church were given an inch, and they used "the spirit of Vatican II" to take ten thousand miles.  Vocations to the priesthood and religious life plummeted, attendance at Mass nosedived, and thousands of Catholics left the Church for Protestant churches, other religions, or nothing at all.

Stuart calls the third method of dealing with the lies of the Enlightenment period "retreat."  I prefer the term "creative subversion."  Stuart uses the example from the eighteenth century of the Great Awakening and the Methodist revival.  Charles and John Wesley were Oxford educated.  They were well aware of the anti-Christian intellectual trends of the eighteenth century.  The Wesley brothers just went around them.

They did not engage in open conflict, nor did they accommodate the Enlightenment philosophies and compromise their faith.  Instead, they simply got on with the task of living radical, dynamic, obedient, Spirit-filled lives.  They evangelized the working classes.  They wrote books and hymns.  They traveled tirelessly, preaching the gospel.  They started churches, ran Bible studies, advised the poor, organized charities to battle against poverty and alcoholism, started schools, campaigned against social injustice, and raised money for all the good work they were doing.

They may not have been Catholics, but they were Christian heroes, and the Catholics who have done the same down the ages — the apostles and early believers, the Benedictine monks, the Jesuit missionary martyrs, and countless others — realized that the best strategy was simply to sidestep the subtle lies, roll up their sleeves, and do what they could where they were and with what they had.

Hercules the Hero

Did I say there was a Hydra?  There was also a hero.  His name was Hercules, and he was sent by the gods to kill the dreaded serpent of the swamps of Lerna.  In the second part of the book, we will look again at the sixteen isms and learn the practical steps we can take to overcome them.

Some members of the Body of Christ might choose to engage in direct conflict with the sixteen isms, and others might choose to accommodate, dialogue, and reason with the followers of the way of the world.  I believe both of these attempts will founder and fail.  Instead, the right way to counter the lies is the third way — the way of creative subversion.

It is not only better to light a candle than to curse the dark, but it is also the only way to banish the dark.  Only by the light of our lives will we defeat the darkness.  Debate and dialogue now are pointless.  Our lives must be our argument.  Is it still a battle?  To be sure; and engaging in battle by living radiant, Spirit-filled lives is the most effective way to engage in the combat.

Every Five Hundred Years

This has happened time and again over the two-thousand-year history of the Church: the Church has descended into heresy, corruption, and immorality, and society has fallen into decadence, despair, vice, and violence.  That is when ordinary men and women rise up and become extraordinary heroes.  They are given the grace to see the problem clearly and understand the solutions.

Every five hundred years, there seems to be a major crisis in the Faith, and at each juncture, a new wave of witnesses rise up.  Ancient Rome was a cruel, dark, and demon-possessed society, but Rodney Stark has shown how the first Christians simply lived a graced life of charity and peace, and the pagan world was drawn to their example and converted.

At the beginning of the sixth century, the Church was listless and corrupt, and the Roman Empire had crumbled into chaos and anarchy.  St. Benedict stepped out and established simple communities centered on prayer, work, and reading, thereby planting the seeds out of which a new Christendom blossomed.

By the turn of the first millennium, Church and society had once more drifted into corruption, crime, sin, decadence, and complacency.  The Benedictine Order surged forth in the great Cistercian renewal.  This was a fresh wave of monastic missionary effort that brought an amazing resurgence of Christian learning, culture, and faith.

Five hundred years later, the Church had again drifted into corruption, and society was broken into chaos and confusion.  This time, it was the saints of the Counter-Reformation who brought renewal simply by living out the creatively subversive alternative.

Another five hundred years has passed.  We now stand on a new threshold.  It is our turn.  But this time it is different.  We have drifted into the swamp before, but I believe we are now facing a battle in the world and the Church that the world has never seen before.

The human race has never before existed in a culture without any kind of transcendent points of reference.47 In the previous conflicts—even with bitter disagreements—there has been a shared foundation — a shared belief in an authority that was greater than the material realm.  Then both combatants had ground on which to stand.  Now we are in a new kind of wasteland.  We are dancing on quicksand — standing on the edge of a "grimpen where there is no secure foothold, and menaced by monsters."

A Counterfeit Faith

Furthermore, I am convinced that this message is not denominational.  The Christian church today is not divided into Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant.  It is divided into those who believe in the core Christian faith and those who follow a counterfeit version of Christianity.

This false version of Christianity turns the supernatural religion of the Cross and the Resurrection into a formula of good works to make people respectable.  It adds an attractive stream of therapy to make people superficially happy and tops it off with a vague belief in God as "the spiritual dimension within."  This fake religion gives the whole scam the appearance of true religion.  Jesus, in this fake religion, is a nice guy, a wise teacher, a gentle soul, a spiritual guide, a community organizer, a social justice warrior, and a caring healer.  But he's not the incarnate Son of God, the second Person of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, who took flesh of the Blessed Virgin Mary, His Mother.  He's not the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  He's not the Redeemer of mankind, who shed His blood on the old, rugged Cross and then rose again to banish death forever.

Those who believe and attempt to live authentic, Christianity do so within Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism.  Despite our differences in customs and doctrines, we share in a core belief that the Christian faith is supernaturally revealed by God and that its fundamental tenets and moral teachings cannot be changed.  It is we who need to be changed.

Those who follow the religion of the antichrist believe the Christian faith is a human construct derived from a particular culture that is not revealed but relative.  The doctrines of this religion are the sixteen heads of the Hydra that I have exposed, but the beast of Lerna is in our churches.  The Hydra heads wear bishops' miters, and the dragons are clothed in the rich robes of popular priests, the academic gowns of theology professors, the sober suits of Protestant pastors, and the sleek suits of prosperity-gospel preachers.

Genuine disagreements on doctrine remain between Catholics, Protestants, and the Eastern Orthodox, and these cannot be ignored, but the deepest divide in Christendom is between those who follow the core gospel and those who follow the gospel of the antichrist.  Archbishop Fulton Sheen predicted the rise of this counterfeit Christianity — the religion of the antichrist:

This is the temptation to have a new religion without a Cross, a liturgy without a world to come, a religion to destroy a religion, or a politics which is a religion — one that renders unto Caesar even the things that are God's.

In the midst of all his seeming love for humanity and his glib talk of freedom and equality, he will have one great secret which he will tell to no one: he will not believe in God.  Because his religion will be brotherhood of Man without the fatherhood of God, he will deceive even the elect.  He will set up a counter church which will be the ape of the Church, because he, the Devil, is the ape of God.  It will have all the notes and characteristics of the Church, but in reverse and emptied of its divine content.  It will be a mystical body of the Antichrist that will in all externals resemble the mystical body of Christ.

Notice that this false religion is not organized into a denomination with a recognizable infrastructure, creed, and hierarchy.  Instead, it is a transdenominational, interfaith infestation.  Like an intestinal worm, this false religion works its way into the guts of all the Christian denominations.  It distorts and destroys them from within.  This religion of the antichrist infects and feeds on all the churches like a hideous parasite, but one that manifests itself with a smile.

This seductive spirit appeals to weak Christians of sentimental faith and shallow catechesis.  The counterfeit faith is hard to resist because it presents itself as gentle, kind, tolerant, and unifying.  Resist this sly beast with the kindly face, and you will be blamed, vilified, and castigated as unloving, divisive, judgmental, and unkind.  You'll be blamed for being the worst kind of repressive, legalistic, and dictatorial fundamentalist Pharisee.

A Radical Plan

The word radical comes from the Latin word for "root."  To be radical is to go back to the roots — to be rooted — and in this chaotic, fast-swirling society, to be rooted in any belief system at all is to be a bewildering presence.  Just as, in a world of fugitives, the one who goes home will seem to be running away, so, in a world of anarchy, to be "rooted and grounded in love" (Eph. 3:17) is to be subversive, and to live this life joyfully and positively is to be what Pope Benedict XVI called a "creative minority."

What I propose is no less than the radical discipleship of the first Christians in the Roman Empire, the creative subversion of St. Benedict and his disciples, the innovative and dynamic example of the Cistercian reform, the admirable qualities of Protestant zeal, and the Catholic Reformation.  In every age, Christians have followed the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by His own example, taught how to be a force of creative subversion in the world.

So, with whatever gifts we have, we will step out in faith to follow Christ in radical discipleship.  We will step out with great courage to wield the sword of truth and the fire of love and do battle with the Hydra.  Then, by the grace given to us, and from our obedience and sacrifice, the Hydra will be beheaded and the seeds planted for a new civilization of love and light to flourish.

dividertop

Acknowledgement

longenecker Rev. Dwight Longenecker. "The Slippery Serpent." Beheading Hydra (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2021) 125-137.

Reprinted with permission of Sophia Institute Press.

The Author

hydratinyFather Dwight Longenecker serves as the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. Father Longenecker studied for the Anglican ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and served for ten years in the Anglican ministry as a curate, a chaplain at Cambridge and a country parson. In 1995 he and his family were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. He is the author of more than twenty books including: Beheading Hydra, Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing, Listen My Son: St. Benedict for Fathers, More Christianity, Challenging Catholics: A Catholic Evangelical Dialogue, St. Benedict and St. Therese: The Little Rule & the Little Way, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate, and The Path to Rome. You can follow his writings, listen to his podcasts, join his online courses, browse his books, and be in touch at DwightLongenecker.com.

Copyright © 2021 Dwight Longenecker
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