Volume 11 Number 1
The Height of Optimism

01 December 1997

Our present way of life is not viable
When Mother Teresa died, I was reading a biography of an Englishman who did much to introduce her to a wider world. Just published in the US, Gregory Wolfe's Malcolm Muggeridge (Eerdmans 1997, Hodder & Stoughton 1995) is a modern pilgrim's progress.

The book captures vividly the life of a writer who has been called the greatest Christian journalist of the 20th century: a stylist with words, who has been ranked with Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell; a master of TV documentaries and interviews. His BBC documentary and book about Mother Teresa, Something Beautiful for God, reached millions. Her influence contributed to his becoming a Catholic.

Malcolm was a political radical and a cultural iconoclast, a prophetic scourge of the follies and fantasies of our time, who became a mentor to the 1960s' satirists in Britain. He was often ahead of his time, predicting the collapse of the British and Soviet empires, Solzhenitsyn's return to Russia, the growth of royal soap opera and the advent of round-the-clock news, 'Newzak', as he called it.

A bundle of complications, he was, as his writings show, an honest man, honest about his own struggles and weaknesses, and about the world around him. After a stint in the Soviet Union, he was one of the first men of the left to have the courage to expose the lie on which that system was built.

St Mug, as he was sometimes known -- affectionately by some, derisively by others -- was, indeed, a pilgrim. A reviewer in the London Times, wrote of his 'genuinely religious sense of life as a lost and bewildered stranger in this stained and impermanent realm'. On his gravestone is carved, not what he might have preferred, 'He used words well', but 'Valiant for Truth'.

I knew Malcolm, and he and his wife, Kitty, were several times in our home in Britain. I first met him at the BBC studios when he was doing a series, Let me speak, in which two of my family participated. On that programme a young friend of mine asked him, 'Tell me, Mr Muggeridge, why are you so cynical?'

I once wrote to Malcolm about what I perceived as his pessimism. He replied, 'In my opinion our present way of life is not viable because its values are false, it is godless with no sense of any sort of moral order in the universe. To suppose that such a way of life could be made successful would seem to me to be the most pessimistic conclusion possible to be reached. By the same token, my own conclusion, that it's on a Gadarene slide, is the height of optimism.'

Throughout his life, the conflict between his ideals and his lifestyle caused him inner turmoil. At one point he even came close to suicide.

In an interview about his BBC series on St Paul, he referred to the apostle as 'fighting against something he knew would ultimately captivate and capture him'. That was in many ways his own experience. He was haunted by the feeling that God was pursuing him and demanding that he embrace the life of faith. For a long time he refused to publicly espouse the Christian faith as he felt he could not live up to its ethical standards.

On a visit to Salem, Oregon, he composed a prayer and inscribed it on the flyleaf of a paperback copy of St Augustine's Confessions: 'O, God, stay with me. Let no word cross my lips that is not your word, no thought enter my mind that is not your thought, no deed ever be done or entertained by me that is not your deed.'

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