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Whittaker Chambers, American

Alyssa Rosenberg says that the TV series “The Americans,” about Philip and Elizabeth, two KGB spies in 1980s America, has a substantive, fascinating take on Christianity. Paige is the teenage daughter of the spy couple; she does not know her parents are Soviet agents. Rosenberg writes:

Over the past two seasons, Paige’s attraction to Christianity has dovetailed with a more sinister plot: the KGB’s request that Philip and Elizabeth recruit their daughter, turning her into a second-generation, American-born spy for the agency. This season we learn that Elizabeth has been accompanying Paige to church, convinced that what’s drawing her daughter to faith is the opportunity it offers her to work on issues such as the anti-nuclear movement. “Ideologically, she’s open to the right ideas,” Elizabeth reports to Gabriel (Langella), who has asked for a status report.

But after Paige asks whether Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) and his wife can be his guests for her birthday dinner, Philip and Elizabeth start to recognize that their daughter is growing away from them in a very different direction from what they’d expected. Over dinner, they learn that Paige doesn’t want anything of this world, be it a necklace or a bike, capitalism or communism. “What I really want this year is to get baptized,” Paige tells them. “It’s kind of like an initiation,” Pastor Tim explains to a confused Henry. “You wash away your old self and make yourself clean for Jesus Christ,” Paige tells her brother eagerly.

It’s a profoundly disturbing concept to Philip and Elizabeth. Where most shows might suggest that behind the veil of baptism lies only human psychological needs that can be filled by religious rituals, the couple now perceive profound mysteries, a draw to something they can’t understand or divert into another channel. Paige’s faith threatens the couple as communists, as atheists and simply as parents of a teenage girl who thought they knew their daughter. By shifting the baseline perspective of their main characters, “The Americans” gives Christianity the real power it so often lacks in pop culture.

Funny that I read this today, after going back to my copy of Witness, ex-Soviet spy Whitaker Chambers’s 1952 memoir about his years working for the KGB, and what made him turn on communism. From the book:

Communism is what happens when, in the name of Mind, men free themselves from God. But its view of God, its knowledge of God, its experience of God, is what alone gives character to a society or a nation, and meaning to its destiny. Its culture, the voice of this character, is merely that view, knowledge experience, of God, fixed by its most intense spirits in terms intelligible to the mass of men. There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.

The crisis of Communism exists to the degree in which it has failed to free the peoples that it rules from God. Nobody knows this better than the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God. It exists to the degree in which the Western world actually shares Communism’s materialist vision, is so dazzled by the logic of the materialist interpretation of history, politics and economics, that it fails to grasp that, for it, the only possible answer to the Communist challenge: Faith in God or Faith in Man? is the challenge: Faith in God.

Economics is not the central problem of this century. It is a relative problem which can be solved in relative ways. Faith is the central problem of this age. The Western world does not know it, but it already possesses the answer to this problem — but only provided that its faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as Communism’s faith in Man.

As you know if you read the book, it was studying his child’s ear, and intuiting the existence of a Creator, that brought Chambers out of the depths of his dedication to Stalinism. He wrote, of his conversion away from Communism and to Christianity:

What I had been fell from me like dirty rags. The rags that fell from me were not only Communism. What fell was the whole web of the materialist modern mind—the luminous shroud which it has spun about the spirit of man, paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of his soul for God, denying in the name of knowledge the reality of the soul and its birthright in that mystery on which mere knowledge falters and shatters at every step. If I had rejected only Communism, I would have rejected only one political expression of the modern mind, the most logical because the most brutal in enforcing the myth of man’s material perfectibility.

An astonishing book. What kind of faith can convert a man from a rival faith to one (Christianity) that he feared was on the losing side of history? That’s the mystery I want to see explored in popular art.

In any case, as Chambers’s case shows, and as it sounds like “The Americans” demonstrates, everybody believes in a sacred order, whether they believe in God or not.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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