George Orwell and Jesus Christ

There are four lights! (Bonus points if you figured out from the post's featured image why I was using that and this picture. Answer is at the bottom.)
There are four lights! (Bonus points if you figured out from the post’s featured image why I was using that and this picture)

I’m a big fan of dystopian literature. One of the first dystopias I ever read was 1984 by George Orwell. I wish it were the first Orwell book I had read because I found Animal Farm painfully boring – but I digress. I should probably warn you, here, that there’s a bit of a spoiler in this post, so, if you don’t want to read a spoiler, then you probably don’t want to read this particular entry. Go ahead and stop right here and wait for the next post. I’m on a roll lately, so you won’t be waiting too long.

During the course of the book, Winston, the protagonist, is arrested as a subversive to the government led, at least in figure, by Big Brother. While he is in prison, he is tortured relentlessly. At one point, the following explanation of Winston’s society is offered by his torturer.

O’Brien smiled slightly. ‘You are a flaw in the pattern, Winston. You are a stain that must be wiped out. Did I not tell you just now that we are different from the persecutors of the past? We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us: so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be. Even in the instant of death we cannot permit any deviation. In the old days the heretic walked to the stake still a heretic, proclaiming his heresy, exulting in it. Even the victim of the Russian purges could carry rebellion locked up in his skull as he walked down the passage waiting for the bullet. But we make the brain perfect before we blow it out. The command of the old despotisms was “Thou shalt not”. The command of the totalitarians was “Thou shalt”. Our command is “Thou art”. No one whom we bring to this place ever stands out against us. Everyone is washed clean. Even those three miserable traitors in whose innocence you once believed — Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford — in the end we broke them down. I took part in their interrogation myself. I saw them gradually worn down, whimpering, grovelling, weeping — and in the end it was not with pain or fear, only with penitence. By the time we had finished with them they were only the shells of men. There was nothing left in them except sorrow for what they had done, and love of Big Brother. It was touching to see how they loved him. They begged to be shot quickly, so that they could die while their minds were still clean.’

I would like you to pay particular attention to the phrase I have bolded in this speech. It struck me as an interesting way to reflect on the growth of the relationship between man and the God of Abraham. I will do my best to offer some thoughts on that, but realize that the distinction I am going to make does not necessarily work cleanly here. In my opinion, it doesn’t crumble, but there is also overlap. In the words of one of the professors of Sacred Scripture here at the seminary when I ran my thought by him, “I think there’s some truth to it. The difficulty is that all three are found in all three corpora…[the third is] there before [the Christian era] in its own way.”

Ok. Now that I have thoroughly confused you with my disclaimer, let me tell you what I mean.

In O’Brien’s explanations of the prior and current systems of government, there are three movements:

  1. Thou shalt not…
  2. Thou shalt…
  3. Thou art…

I would like to suggest that, in a certain way, that God’s progressive self-revelation first to the Hebrews under the guidance of Moses, then to the nations of Judea and Israel through the prophets, and finally, in Jesus Christ, to the people of the New Covenant fits into the same mold.

26-charlton-heston-theredlistThou Shalt Not…

Obviously to any modern western mind, these words immediately call up the Ten Commandments (the list, not the movie). Most of the commandments start with this phrase, then go on to tell the people what they should not do: steal, covet, murder, etc. There were also a whole mess of positive rules to be followed as part of the Deuteronomistic Law – even more if we look to the ritual instructions of Leviticus. But, for the most part, it seems clear that the Law of Moses is, at least in most people’s minds, primarily concerned with avoiding evils rather than prescribing positive actions.

Now, I’m not saying this was a mistake on God’s part. It also wasn’t some cosmic carrot that God would only give us a tiny bit at a time because he wanted to keep us on the hook as long as possible. To me, it seems more than clear that God gave us just as much as we could handle in each round. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews points out the progressive revelation in God’s plan culminating with the final revelation of the Son:

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

– Hebrews 1:1-2

One of the prophets from the facade of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. This is one of my pictures from The Rome Experience in the Summer of 2014.
One of the prophets from the facade of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. This is one of my pictures from The Rome Experience in the summer of 2014.

Thou Shalt…

Time went on, and the Hebrew people, both in the Northern and Southern Kingdoms committed all kinds of “abominations” (to use Ezekiel’s word). The refrain of the prophets was consistent. They were not only called to leave sin and wrong behind, but they were to live up to standards that befitted God’s chosen people. They were commanded to circumcise their hearts on several occasions. God did not just want them to fulfill various complicated cultic rituals; rather, he wanted them to care for the widow and the orphan.

The larger prophets frequently rail against the idolatry of Israel and Judah, an offense likened to adultery. God remains faithful; the people cheat on him. The prophets keep delivering the message that the people must be faithful to God in response to his faithfulness to them. This illustration is driven home in Hosea, who is told to take as his wife a promiscuous woman. The whole story of Hosea is one of him desiring Gomer (the woman) to be faithful to him, and her still sleeping around.

Perhaps, the “Thou Shalt…” of the prophets is best summed up by Micah, one of the 12 minor prophets:

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

He has showed you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

– Micah 6:7-8

Christ victorious from the top of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. This is also a picture I took on The Rome Experience in the summer of 2014
Christ victorious from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This is also a picture I took on The Rome Experience in the summer of 2014

Thou Art…

This is the new and unique feature of the Christian faith. Like I said earlier, the notion of being children of God was present in the Law and in the Prophets in their own way, but the notion it is found in Christianity is new. It is no longer just symbolic in some way, but, as Jeremiah promises, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts”

Here’s that whole passage, Jeremiah’s prophecy of the New Covenant:

“Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,  not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Jeremiah 31:31-34

That is what being Christian is. It is not fulfilled by external observance, but merely manifested by external observance. The external observance is necessary, but, if the internal orientation does not match the external, it is to “eats and drinks judgment upon himself.” (1 Cor 11:29) I am unabashedly Catholic; I fully believe the sacraments are efficacious (they do what they say they do), but if we treat them as magic tricks, the grace God gives us will be blocked by our own will.

In the New Covenant, we have the Law written on our hearts. If we want the new Law, it is not, like so many claim, the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes; the New Law is that which is written on our hearts by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we received in our baptism. The Sermon on the Mount serves as a way for us to read, in text, what the Holy Spirit already wrote on our hearts. It is this transition from an external action that we do to fulfill some obligation to God or an external action that we don’t do to avoid sin to the internal transformation to the temple of the Holy Spirit that we must not defile that is the New Covenant and the New Law. This is why we Christians are not people of The Book; We are people of The Word, the Living Incarnate Word that is Jesus Christ and whose Spirit dwells within us from the moment of our baptism.

Hence, it is in God working in and through us, His Children, Christians, Little Christs that we can perform actions that offer supernatural merit by joining each of these actions to the free gift of Christ. It is from that new identity in Christ that flows the Christian life and our ability to join our merit and our sufferings to His in the Mystical Body of Christ.


  1. Thou shalt not = The Law
  2. Thou shalt = The Prophets
  3. Thou art = Life in Christ

It’s not a perfect parallel, but I thought it interesting.

Okay, before I leave you on this one, I promised an explanation of the Star Trek pictures.

It is from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called Chain of Command, in which Picard is captured and tortured by the Cardassians and told that he should see and say that there were five lights in front of him when there were four. The scene is clearly inspired by the following from 1984:

‘On the contrary,’ he said, ‘you have not controlled it. That is what has brought you here. You are here because you have failed in humility, in self-discipline. You would not make the act of submission which is the price of sanity. You preferred to be a lunatic, a minority of one. Only the disciplined mind can see reality, Winston. You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party. That is the fact that you have got to relearn, Winston. It needs an act of self-destruction, an effort of the will. You must humble yourself before you can become sane.’
He paused for a few moments, as though to allow what he had been saying to sink in.
‘Do you remember,’ he went on, ‘ writing in your diary, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four”?’
‘Yes,’ said Winston.
O’Brien held up his left hand, its back towards Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended.
‘How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?
‘And if the party says that it is not four but five — then how many?’
The word ended in a gasp of pain. The needle of the dial had shot up to fifty-five. The sweat had sprung out all over Winston’s body. The air tore into his lungs and issued again in deep groans which even by clenching his teeth he could not stop. O’Brien watched him, the four fingers still extended. He drew back the lever. This time the pain was only slightly eased.
‘How many fingers, Winston?’
The needle went up to sixty.
‘How many fingers, Winston?’
‘Four! Four! What else can I say? Four!’
The needle must have risen again, but he did not look at it. The heavy, stern face and the four fingers filled his vision. The fingers stood up before his eyes like pillars, enormous, blurry, and seeming to vibrate, but unmistakably four.
‘How many fingers, Winston?’
‘Four! Stop it, stop it! How can you go on? Four! Four!’
‘How many fingers, Winston?’
‘Five! Five! Five!’
‘No, Winston, that is no use. You are lying. You still think there are four. How many fingers, please?’
‘Four! five! Four! Anything you like. Only stop it, stop the pain!
Abruptly he was sitting up with O’Brien’s arm round his shoulders. He had perhaps lost consciousness for a few seconds. The bonds that had held his body down were loosened. He felt very cold, he was shaking uncontrollably, his teeth were chattering, the tears were rolling down his cheeks. For a moment he clung to O’Brien like a baby, curiously comforted by the heavy arm round his shoulders. He had the feeling that O’Brien was his protector, that the pain was something that came from outside, from some other source, and that it was O’Brien who would save him from it.
‘You are a slow learner, Winston,’ said O’Brien gently.
‘How can I help it?’ he blubbered. ‘How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.
Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.’
He laid Winston down on the bed. The grip of his limbs tightened again, but the pain had ebbed away and the trembling had stopped, leaving him merely weak and cold. O’Brien motioned with his head to the man in the white coat, who had stood immobile throughout the proceedings. The man in the white coat bent down and looked closely into Winston’s eyes, felt his pulse, laid an ear against his chest, tapped here and there, then he nodded to O’Brien.
‘Again,’ said O’Brien.
The pain flowed into Winston’s body. The needle must be at seventy, seventy-five. He had shut his eyes this time. He knew that the fingers were still there, and still four. All that mattered was somehow to stay alive until the spasm was over. He had ceased to notice whether he was crying out or not. The pain lessened again. He opened his eyes. O’Brien had drawn back the lever.
‘How many fingers, Winston?’
‘Four. I suppose there are four. I would see five if I could. I am trying to see five.’
‘Which do you wish: to persuade me that you see five, or really to see them?’
‘Really to see them.’
‘Again,’ said O’Brien.
Perhaps the needle was eighty — ninety. Winston could not intermittently remember why the pain was happening. Behind his screwed-up eyelids a forest of fingers seemed to be moving in a sort of dance, weaving in and out, disappearing behind one another and reappearing again. He was trying to count them, he could not remember why. He knew only that it was impossible to count them, and that this was somehow due to the mysterious identity between five and four. The pain died down again. When he opened his eyes it was to find that he was still seeing the same thing. Innumerable fingers, like moving trees, were still streaming past in either direction, crossing and recrossing. He shut his eyes again.
‘How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know. You will kill me if you do that again. Four, five, six — in all honesty I don’t know.’
‘Better,’ said O’Brien.
A needle slid into Winston’s arm.

2 Replies to “George Orwell and Jesus Christ”

  1. Excellent. And “Thou Art” makes me think of Christ as God’s Art: the perfect form of beauty that all things in creation were patterned after, the model of man’s ultimate fulfillment and the blueprint for the moral law that has been (re)etched into the heart of man. Great stuff, Joe.

  2. Excellent. And “Thou Art” makes me think of Christ as God’s Art: the perfect form of beauty that all things in creation were patterned after, the model of man’s ultimate fulfillment and the blueprint for the moral law that has been (re)etched into the heart of man. Great stuff, Joe.

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