Never Man Spake

Author: Arnold Lunn

Never Man Spake

By Arnold Lunn

I have sometimes toyed with the idea of a romance on the lines of Butler's . My scene would be laid in Nodnol, the capital of Atlantis, which did not, as legend asserts, vanish beneath the sea, but which still exists cut off from the world.

The first link with the outside world is provided by the wreck of a small tramp steamer which drifts on to the shore of Atlantis. The few survivors include the pious captain, who contrives to bring ashore a Bible which has accompanied him on all his voyages.

The captain is entertained by Professor Cyjod, who holds the Chair of Literature at the University of Nodnol, and who is a recognised leader of the Nodnolian intelligentsia. Professor Cyjod does not like clergymen, and, like most of the intelligentsia, he is convinced that the established religion of Atlantis is on its deathbed. Like all great men, he has his hobby, and his particular hobby consists in collecting the more absurd utterances of the lamas of Nodnol and making them into a scrap-book of lama nonsense.

The Professor learns English from the pious captain and begins to read the Bible. He is captivated by the beauty of the Gospels, and foresees with pleasure the literary sensation which will be provoked by his translation of the Gospels into the language of Atlantis. Moreover, he notes with pleasure that the Gospels provide a powerful stick with which to beat the lamas of the established religion of his country. He foresees many happy hours elaborating comparisons between the beauty of Christianity and the shoddy dreariness of the faith of his fathers. Needless to say he has no intention of suggesting that Christianity is true, for his position as a leader of the intelligentsia would be destroyed at once if he showed overt sympathy with any form of religion. But he foresees correctly that he will be encouraged by the plaudits of his disciples if he proves that, as superstitions go, Christianity is infinitely superior to the established religion of the country.

In due course his translation of the Gospels is published and creates a literary sensation of the first magnitude. Literary critics are affected by conflicting emotions; envy that Professor Cyjod should have forestalled them and the consequent desire to minimise the importance of his discovery, fear that they should fail to anticipate and exploit the literary fashion of the moment. For to be unfashionable is to be forgotten, and the literary critics unite in a chorus of praise of the literary beauties of Christianity. "This beautiful superstition" is the title of a two-column article by Professor Cyjod's eminent rival in the leading literary review.

Christianity becomes the rage. No cocktail party in the Nodnolian equivalent of Bloomsbury is complete without a Bible. " 'Consider the lilies of the field.' Oh, my dear, how too divine." "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much." This is a popular quotation, for if "loving much" is a qualification for forgiveness, every member of the Nodnolian intelligentsia feels capable of passing this test with flying colours.

I have often felt a real sympathy for our own intelligentsia. Vague allusions to the supreme beauty of Eastern religions are common enough in their writings. Both Mr. Joad and Professor Haldane, in our controversies, have drawn my attention to the spiritual values of Hinduism, that refined creed which prescribes for the faithful a diet of cow-dung, which hands over little girls of five to become the official prostitutes of the temple priests, and which fills its temples with phallic designs exhibiting all forms of vice, natural and unnatural. But I sympathise with the intelligentsia, for every attempt to compare other religions with Christianity only serves to make more manifest the unique glory of the Faith.

It is difficult to imagine the impact which the Gospels would make upon the mind of a man who was reading them for the first time. How would you react, reader, if you stumbled by chance on the story of the Christ-child born in a manger "because there was no room for them in the inn" ? What other religion has had the audacity to begin with God in a stable? Try to read the story of the woman taken in adultery as if you were reading it for the first time, then turn to the no less wonderful tale of the woman who was a sinner, the woman who washed Christ's feet with her tears. Then read the parable of the Prodigal Son, and you will find it difficult not to echo the exclamation of men for whom custom had not staled the infinite variety of Christ's words, "Never man spake like this man."

"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? " Has any poet of this world ever said anything lovelier? Indeed, the word poet is too weak for Christ, but perhaps that fine Anglo-Saxon word songsmith, which has disappeared from our language, might without irreverence be applied to one who on the anvil of eternal truth struck out songs whose music has filled the centuries with enchanted melody.

Read the story of the Crucifixion as if you were reading it for the first time. "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." Has human passion ever found so divine expression? " My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? " Is there anything like that in human tragedies before or since? Does Sophocles strike this note? Does Shakespeare?

And mark how loveliness is married to sorrow even in the closing movement of the final act. How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings even when those feet are climbing the mount of Calvary. "Father, forgive them. . . . To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise. . . . Then said he to the disciple, Behold thy mother. . . ." Can these sayings be matched in all the masterpieces of men?

Read the story of Christ's appearance before Pilate. How immeasurably this story would have lost had Pilate been shown, as a writer of fiction would probably have shown him, as a callous and unimaginative procurator only too ready to hand over a troublesome fanatic to his troublesome foes. How the story gains when we begin to understand the impact of Jesus on his judge, on a man very like you and me, a man who had felt the magic of Jesus as so many who disown him have felt it, but who had not the courage to fall down and worship.

Pilate's distaste for the which had been assigned to him is obvious from the first. I see him as a Roman, characteristic of his age, an age which had lost its faith in the gods, but which was still susceptible to superstition. Pilate reflected, as so many moderns reflect, "there may be something in it after all." He had nothing but contempt for the fanaticism of the Jews, and he faces, with Roman disdain, the angry priests who are demanding death for a man of whose immeasurable superiority he is uneasily aware. He explores every avenue for compromise. He is superstitious, for superstition flourishes in a time of religious decay, and he is sorely troubled by his wife's dreams. "Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him." Surely authentic history speaks in that verse.

As for poor Pilate, he becomes more hot and bothered as the hours pass. Desperately he tries to escape. He offers the angry crowd the ultimate choice, Jesus or Barabbas, and they choose Barabbas. Still Pilate persists, but his courage fails when he hears that terrible cry, "If thou let this man go, thou art not Cæsar's friend: whoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Cæsar."

Pilate "took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it."

Do you think that a simple Jew could have invented this touch?

Pilate gives in, but not without one last kick. The Jews have beaten him, but Pilate is determined to spoil their triumph. Let Jesus hang on the cross, but let the cross fling a Roman taunt to the Jews whom the Romans despise. With his own hands Pilate writes, "Jesus of Nazareth The King of the Jews," and this insult to all Judea is nailed to the cross. "There hangs your king," says Pilate in effect. Back stream the angry priests, but Pilate has had enough. There is a vivid French phrase which expresses that exasperated fedupness which differs in kind and not only in degree from ordinary boredom,. Pilate , and he silences the Jews with a remark which men have quoted ever since to express unyielding finality. With the words, "What I have written I have written," he makes his exit from the stage.

Pilate stands as a type, for all time, of those who reject Christ's claims but profess to admire Christ's character. Christ has been patronised and praised in one book after another from the pens of wistful agnostics. Writers such as Matthew Arnold, Renan and Middleton Murray say, as Pilate said, "I find no fault in him." They all assume, as Pilate assumed, that they are "innocent of the blood of this just person," and, like Pilate, continue to ask, "What is truth? " in the presence of living truth. It is Catholic doctrine that Christ is crucified afresh by those who reject him. Those who repudiate Christ, whether they reject him with honest and uncompromising hostility or with patronising condescension, share the guilt of Pilate. For every man is faced by the choice of Pilate, there is no between worship and crucifixion.

From (Sheed & Ward Inc. 1933), pp 159-164.

This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Summer 1995, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.