Russell D. Moore (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention’s official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns.
He blogs frequently at his “Moore to the Point” website, and is the author or editor of five books, including Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ, Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches, and The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective.
Imagine Left Behind if what were raptured were not persons but inhibitions. That still wouldn’t be this novel. You would have to further imagine the book showcasing zombies with nothing much left of their humanity but their appetites, combated by a physician with a tendency toward witty asides about culture, religion, and human psychology. And you’d have to further imagine the novel written by an Old Testament prophet with literary superpowers peering into the future set before us. Then you’d start approaching what Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome is like, and why you should read it.
Walker Percy (1916-1990) was the heir of one of Mississippi’s most powerful political and literary families. He was medical doctor in Covington, Louisiana (round about New Orleans) with expertise in philosophy and semiotics. He was also a keen observer of popular culture. When visiting with the literary genius Eudora Welty, it’s reported that they were overheard discussing not Faulkner or Chekhov but The Incredible Hulk. He was a Christian deeply immersed in the thought of Augustine and Søren Kierkegaard. And he was estranged enough from American culture to be able to watch it, as though from afar.
The protagonist of this novel, Percy’s last, is an alcoholic physician who’s done some jail-time, and has now returned home to find that the cast of characters is the same as he left them, but they seem to be reading from a different script. He discovers that his neighbors are being pharmaceutically engineered in a way that removes their human troubles, their human fears, their human reluctances, but, with all of that, it seems, their humanity itself.
The story is brisk, and fun, in its own right, but embedded in the story is a jeremiad of what Percy saw bubbling beneath the surface of American culture. Taking aim at a kaleidoscope of targets, Percy gives us More, to the point. At the heart of his prophetic critique is the division of body from soul.
This starts with the book’s view of science, which divides body from soul by replacing the concept of soul altogether. Near the beginning of the novel, Dr. More complains that psychologists who actually believe in a psyche are near extinct, replaced by “brain engineers” who reduce everything to synapses and chemicals. “If one can prescribe a chemical and overnight turn a haunted soul into a bustling little body, why take on such a quixotic quest as pursing the secret of one’s very own self?”
This quest for engineered happiness, at the heart of the narrative, is what happens when abstract reason and data replace the mystery of human existence. The result of rationalism isn’t, ultimately cool detachment, but hedonism. He sums up the thought of B.F. Skinner this way: “The object of life is to gratify yourself without getting arrested.”
This wild coldness that starts with the dehumanization of the self continues toward the dehumanization of others. And that begins with words. “Neonates” are infants and “euthanates” are the elderly, both of whom are killed. In a cunning use of language, the Supreme Court does not deprive them of a right to life, but instead rules for them, with a “right to death.” The infants are lacking in a right to life because they are not conscious of themselves, and if self-consciousness is what it means to be human, well, then what are they?
The cruel experiments at the heart of this book are pictured not as self-consciously cruel, but as attempts at philanthropy, to “fix” what’s wrong with people. It turns out thought that if one doesn’t know, as Wendell Berry would put it, “what people are for,” this is awful. And if one no longer knows what humanity is, one can kill without ever feeling bloodthirsty. In fact, you can feel as though you are saving the world.
The body/soul division shows up not just in secularizing, utopian science but also in American religion. Percy was, I think, the keenest observer in our time of the almost-gospels of the Bible Belt. He talks here about “educated Episcopal-type unbelievers,” who need the social cache of religion but not much else. He mentions that Louisiana is more Christian than ever, “not Catholic Christian but Texas Christian.”
Even this enthusiastic evangelicalism, though, is often a matter of fitting into the culture. These Cajuns were converted, he notes “first by Texas oil bucks, then by Texas evangelists.”
These evangelicals are hard-working, dependable, quick to call one “brother” and to shout “Hallelujah” in conversation. More says, “I’ve nothing against them, but they give me the creeps.”
In the character of Ellen, he describes a woman who makes the trek from southern Presbyterianism to Pentecostalism, put off by the liberalism of mainline Protestantism. Her new birth, though, disconnected spirit from matter, in her mind. “She loves the Holy Spirit but says little about Jesus,” he reflects. This, like the move from psychology to psychopharmacology, has consequences.
“She is herself a little holy spirit hooked up to a lusty body,” he says. “In her case the spirit has nothing to do with the body. Each goes its own way.” This shows up in her attitude toward the Lord’s Supper, which she sees as “Catholic trafficking in bread, wine, oil, salt, water, body, blood, spit—things. What does the Holy Spirit need with things? Body does body things. Spirit does spirit things.”
As with science, this sort of disconnection of soul from body, doesn’t stop carnality; it just results in the worst sort of carnality, that without a soul or conscience.
Every Christian should read this novel because in it you will start to see why some of the ethical anarchy around us is happening. You’ll recognize a society that thinks it can medicate away the fear of death, a society that thinks human existence is the sum total of neurons firing. You’ll recognize why, for instance, the advocates of abortion rights increasingly no longer bother to argue that unborn life isn’t human. One need only argue that it isn’t happy, and there are always those who can “fix” unhappiness with a pill or a scalpel.
But, at the same time, Percy’s novel isn’t a politicized caricature of why the other side must be stopped. There are not villains of all-encompassing wickedness and heroes of imitable virtue. The culture of death, in this book, isn’t just a political issue or a cultural force or a “worldview.” It’s a spirit of the age that is cunning enough not to stay on just one side of culture war fence. In this book, Percy shows us the culture of death—and shows us our own faces there. Like all prophets worth the name, he recognizes that judgment starts with the household of God.