“Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile … We will make the whole universe a noise in the end.” – Screwtape
Perhaps it was providence (or editorial insight) that led to two particular articles being published in Crisis Magazine on the same day. On the main page, “The Tower of Babel and the Struggle to be like God,” by Maria Cintorino, and in The Civilized Reader, Mitchell Kalpakgian’s piece on C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. Why would this be providential? Because the title of Lewis’ novel is inspired by a poem by Scottish poet Sir David Lyndsay, which references the Tower of Babel and “the shadow of [its] hyddeous strength.”
The points to be made about Babel are numerous, and Cintorino is right in assessing the continual looming shadow of that hideous strength in the story of humanity. The desire to be God is the desire hiding deep in the background, controlling the machinations of every sinful action, from the political despot and dictator, right down to the porn-addled adolescent or hard-partying college student. It is the desire that presents itself in the philosophies of Nietzsche: what the Progressives in Lewis’ N.I.C.E. called the New Man, Nietzsche called the ubermensch, the next level of evolution, humanity beyond good and evil. It is the desire to re-write reality; the hatred of limitation; the obsession with freedom.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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But freedom at all costs really does cost all—all that we have, and all that we are. We’re not designed to be free, at least not in the way we want to be, not on our terms. However, it’s helpful to remember that the Satanic lie is not just the lie that he told us, but it’s the lie he told himself.
Milton’s Paradise Lost describes the moment Satan covets God’s throne, and in that instant the character of Sin emerges from his head—his unbegotten daughter. She later explains to him:
Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing
Becam’st enamoured and such joy thou took’st
with me in secret that my womb conceived
A growing burden (II, 763 – 767).
It is the vision of himself in Sin with which he is “enamoured,” and this obsession leads him to impregnate Sin with Death. Satan’s true desire is for himself. This is the practical reality behind the desire to be god; the lust for self, and self alone. Lust, not love, is the most apt word in this case—to properly love oneself, in rightly order understanding, is a requirement of Christian living, but lust uses and discards; it is destructive in its ownership.
Later, when emerging from the fiery lake in Hell, Satan makes his famous proclamation that it is better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. The self-destructive nature of self-lust is evident in this insanity. Better to be tormented for all eternity, better to say farewell to “happy fields where joy forever dwells,” better to hail the horrors of the infernal world, than to bow the knee. Satan creates himself in his own image, and in doing so, serves only to corrupt his image. Such is the lie of Babel, creating man in our own image, reigning here on earth, never bending the knee.
But this ill-defined and impossible to achieve ‘freedom’ only shackles us into further slavery. Such slavery is seen in the conduct of the members of the N.I.C.E. Unknown to most, their experiments tap into demonic forces, and, what they want to claim is pure science animating the decapitated head of a criminal, is actually something far more sinister. Slaves to their desire to liberate themselves from the chains of nature and humanity, the scientists find themselves celebrating their success around a dinner table, until they are interrupted by the forces of good. A curse is placed upon them, the curse of Babel, and they find their languages confused. No longer able to communicate, the party quickly devolves into pandemonium.
The etymology of this word, pandemonium, roughly means “all demons meeting place.” It is the name of the city built by the fallen angels as the capital of Hell. Pandemonium is the vision of Satan, the chaos of his mind can only form chaos in his surrounds. As C.S. Lewis reminds us in The Screwtape Letters, the demonic desire is, “Noise—Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile … We will make the whole universe a noise in the end.”
The lie of Babel, that we can be gods, leads to the curse of Babel, our inability to communicate. There is something deeply profound in this connection between sin and confusion. Communication is part of what makes us human. Our capacity to communicate sets us apart from the animals, it is part of what it means to be made in the image of God. This does not merely mean the ability to speak and hear, but to experience community. A dear friend of mine has a severely disabled daughter who can neither see nor hear. To external viewers, she has no ability to communicate—less, even, than a well-trained parrot. But she is human, and she communicates her humanity through her very being. She can tell when she is going to her grandmother’s house by the turns of the car. She can sense people that she recognizes in the room. She laughs with innocent joy at the touch of a balloon, and inspires that joy in others.
This is not mere communication. This is communion. And it was for communion, with God and each other, that we were created. In attempting to become God by reimagining humanity, we deform ourselves into subhuman creatures and lose our capacity for communion. We may communicate, but it is not truly, deeply human. It is babble.
Humanity’s hideous strength is our ability to create. It is a strength because it is a gift from God—he purposed us to work the land, to co-redeem his creation. It is hideous when it is perverted; we have turned our ability to create into our desire to destroy. In the shadow of that hideous strength the sons of Noah lost their capacity for communion and that same shadow still stretches through time and darkens the hearts and minds of men. It is the shadow which even now we find ourselves in; the shadow that spreads the babble of Babel.
And babble is everywhere. Politics has been reduced to a farcical parody, people merely talking past each other. Debate lacks all logic. No one is interested in hearing, only speaking. Our opinion is fact and requires no proof. Other opinions are false, and no amount of proof will convince us otherwise. Words mean what we want them to mean, and because meaning is fluid, they’re not worth the breath with which they’re spoken. What we have may seem like communication, but it is most certainly not communion.
Every day it is the babble of Babel that corrupts conversation. It is evident on Facebook posts and Disqus comments; in conservative and liberal media alike; in classrooms and schoolyards; on talk show panels and presidential debates; at home in the nursery while the young mother scrolls through Instagram, and at work while the middle-aged man cannot go five minutes without checking the football score. It is why students no longer read books, and neither do teachers. Josef Pieper once wrote that people have lost the ability to see because there is too much to see. The same can be said for hearing. Noise, chaos, confusion and pandemonium fill our ears and desensitize us to the rhythms of created order and the common sense of logic and reason.
We cannot communicate properly because we do not want communion. We want dominion. We choose to reign in a Hell of confusion, rather than serve in a Heaven of true communication.
In a poignant collision of history, George Orwell, author of another literary half-realized prophecy, Nineteen Eighty-Four, wrote a review of Lewis’ book. He writes, “Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story … because they offend the average reader’s sense of probability.” I would argue that probability is on Lewis’ side, not Orwell’s. 1984 has come and gone, Big Brother may be out there, somewhere, but the shadow of that hideous strength grows daily. And as each person succumbs to the desire to be god, the babble of Babel spreads.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “The Tower of Babel,” was painted by Lucas van Valckenborch in 1594.