Ultimate Battles | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | On Raymond Dennehy's novel, Soldier Boy
Raymond Dennehy, Soldier Boy: The War Between Michael & Lucifer (Victoria, B. C.: Trafford Publishers, 2007), 124 pp. Paper.
Raymond Dennehy's new novel reflects his long career as a teacher and philosopher, along with his suspicion that the ultimate aberrations begin in the minds of professors. C. S. Lewis thought this same thing in his Hideous Strength. Dennehy's book, as he acknowledges, is not unmindful of Lewis' Screwtape Letters. What is different with Dennehy is that we look not so much into the devil's machinations about how to corrupt the human race (though that is there) but why he would want to do so. We forget that this too is an intellectual problem of vast significance.
Even more striking about this book is the question of what might be called, in Thomistic terms, "angelic understanding." That is, what is it that the angels say to one another? Logically, we might expect them to have much more insight than we have. Dennehy's lively imagination captures well the notion that angels too are free creatures who have to give reasons for their choices to serve God and be friends with one another or to reject God and corrupt their relations to one another. The gripping drama of the book, a heritage of Milton and of Augustine's definition of pride, is that these choices can be reduced to the diabolical choice of oneself as the cause of things, a kind of angelic imitation of the temptation of Adam and Eve.
Contained in these riveting pages are the philosophical and theological grounds for what we think of our souls in relation to our destiny. This is a novel about the mind of the greatest of the angels, Lucifer himself, and his being driven out of heaven by Michael, the Archangel. If it sounds familiar, it is—even more familiar than we like to think. The characters of both Michael and Lucifer, with their associate devils and angels, are very well and vividly drawn. This book would, in fact, be a very good movie.
What Dennehy, a professor at the University of San Francisco, has done here is to think his way through the mind of a devil. For those of us who know him, we are not surprised at this feat! In one sense, the context of Dennehy's novel is abortion, its deeper reasons and significance. The fact that free and liberal societies now by law promote this right to kill the most innocent of our kind must have more than a human explanation. No one makes this connection better than Dennehy, who also relates its logic to the earlier questions of contraception and modern definitions of freedom as self-fulfillment.
Dennehy has debated and written on this topic of human life and its threats for years. Probably no one in the country is more acute to the mind of those who promote this killing of our kind. He suspects, as I said, that its heinousness cannot be simply human. Thus the book is also a closely argued position brought forth in the intense dialogue of "Soldier Boy" Michael and Lucifer, at once the Prince of Light and Darkness. Lucifer calls Michael, the commander of the Lord's angelic legions, simply "Soldier Boy," a derogative, amusing term to indicate that while Lucifer in the hierarchy of the angels is a Seraph, poor Michael is a rather dull-witted archangel. But Michael is by no means as stupid as Lucifer makes him out to be. He is loyal in his relation to God, something that Lucifer is constantly seeking to undermine.
As I think about this book—a book that certainly requires us to think very closely—what we have here is one of the finest reflections on the nature of evil as a spiritual power and temptation, both angelic and human, that I have ever seen. The most moving context of the dialogue that constitutes the book is whether Lucifer and Michael are friends, which Michael would like to be the case and Lucifer at least pretends to be. But it turns out that Lucifer corrupts every possible relation. He never enters a relation except on terms of "what is in it for me?" There is no "friendship" with Lucifer, as the last and surprising lines of this book indicate. This is why Lucifer represents the very opposite of the Godhead. Yet, he is the most splendid of God's spiritual creation. He reminds us that we should never forget that the ultimate origin of evil is not material, but spiritual, in our relation to what it is that causes us to be in the first place.
In taking us through the "reasoning" of Lucifer in justifying his rebellion against God, we are presented with the classic anti-deity arguments based on freedom, autonomy, and independence. These in themselves noble ideas are turned inward and seen as opposed to God, not related to him. Lucifer knows that he is not himself God. But once he has revolted, he feels that the glory that is due to him is not acknowledged by God, otherwise He would not have created man in the cosmos. The fact that God could love others besides him is taken as a jealous rejection of his own glory.
The result, which is where the human race gets into this act, is that Lucifer must do everything he can to show his revolt against God by corrupting man. Since he cannot reject or hurt God directly, he can in effect get back at God through God's creation and love of corporeal men. In the background, of course, is the Incarnation, the man-God. The most contemptible enterprise of Lucifer is thus to get human beings to kill the most innocent of their own kind in the name of rights or liberty or autonomy, their own, not their existence as images of God.
This book is really fascinating. Dennehy has the clearest of minds. He writes as a man who has indeed encountered evil and knows the personal dangers of coming to grips with it, something that Tolkien once noted. No book will get us through our own souls and the modern mind in quite this same way. Yet, I think, what I found most fascinating about this book, something Chesterton said of Aquinas, is that Dennehy is struck by the relation of angels themselves to each other. We often forget that first drama of the Fall took place among the angels. We can think it a "myth" if we like, but it will become very real on reading Dennehy's Soldier Boy.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Excerpts, & Interviews:
Liberal Democracy as a Culture of Death: Why John Paul II Was Right | Raymond Dennehy
The Illusion of Freedom Separated from Moral Virtue | Raymond Dennehy
Contraception and Homosexuality: The Sterile Link of Separation | Raymond Dennehy
Peanuts and Thomists | Raymond Dennehy
The Case Against Abortion | An Interview with Dr. Francis Beckwith
Introduction to Three Approaches to Abortion | Peter Kreeft
Some Atrocities are Worse than Others | Mary Beth Bonacci
Personally Opposed--To What? | Dr. James Hitchcock
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). Read more of his essays on his website.
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